Length marks two current plays
At three hours, the Penumbra Theater's production of August Wilson's Two Trains Running is a long journey through the territory of a black community in 1969 Pittsburgh. It's a long ride but a good ride, funny, painful and radiantly alive. Two Trains is more overtly political than other Wilson plays; he creates vivid characters, all scarred by the fall-out of white disregard for blacks. Under Lou Bellamy's loving direction, Penumbra's excellent seven member ensemble took me deep into the close world of Memphis Lee's diner.
Lee's diner is Memphis' second business venture. It did well until the city council condemned the thriving area for redevelopment. Now the diner limps on with a handful of regulars as Memphis fights city hall to get a fair price for his building before it gets razed. Crowd noise from the celebration of Malcolm X's birthday sound when the restaurant door opens, and currents of black power swirl beneath the text of the play. West, the undertaker from across the street, takes seven days to bury a man held to be a prophet. The potential for riot shivers the air. Risa, the waitress, is an attractive woman who deliberately scarred her legs as a statement of her independence from men. Tensions, humor and romance flair among the diner's characters as they hew some sort of path for themselves in a world whose balance is tipped against them.
In a nicely cock-sure performance, Ahanti Young plays Wolf, a snappy dresser who makes a living selling small bets in a less-than-honest white man's numbers racket. He has his eye on Risa. The role of Risa is a difficult one; she is the sexual and emotional focus of the play, but her lines are few, and she's on stage most of the time. Marie-Francoise Theodore overcomes the role's challenges. She infuses Risa with a presence that conveys acceptance of her lot to wait on demanding men and a cool reserve about just how much she chooses to do.
The one person guaranteed to touch Risa's heart is vulnerable Hambone, played by the loose-limbed James Craven. Hambone is a deranged man who rages daily about the ham a white man cheated him out of 10 years before. Hambone's rage is both narrow and all encompassing; it's the inner rage of black Americans for the systematic bilking of their rights as full citizens since emancipation.
James Williams' Memphis is an angry man. He nags Risa, as though she were his wife, and he resents the sweetness she showers on Hambone on his dime. His anger has its roots in his past. In a credible recap, Memphis tells how he had to flee his dry-land farm in the South. The white man he bought it from revoked the deed after Memphis hand-dug a 60 foot well and irrigated the land, thus making it valuable. To get rid of Memphis, he slashed open the belly of Memphis' mule and cut off its penis. Memphis got the message.
Benny Cannon plays the deep-voiced undertaker, West. He's a cold and canny businessman, who says not one more word than is necessary. The always appealing Adolphus Ward is Halloway, the community elder, wise and far-seeing. He refers troubled people who are looking to change their luck to the unseen 322 year-old Aunt Esther, an archetype who functions like a collectively conceived African oracle.
Kevin West's engaging Sterling teeters on the edge of the law and good sense. A bright young chancer, he's fresh out of the penitentiary and can't find work. He's warm, spontaneous and determined not to follow his father in working two full-time, dead-end jobs.
Ken Evans creates a detailed set of a period diner in decline, and Lou Bellamy's palpable affection for the music of Wilson's words, his characters and the content of his play radiates from the stage.
Two Trains Running carried me into the recent American past and deep into African American lives. It's a long ride, but I was a willing passenger, and I could have happily stayed aboard longer.
Two Trains Running February 11 - March 9. Wednesdays 10 a.m. Thursdays 7 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturdays 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sundays 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. $26 -$30.Penumbra Theatre, 270, North Kent Street, St. Paul. Call: 651-224-3180. Online: www.penumbratheatre.org.
So much is right with Eye of the Storm's production of Niel LaBute's The Shape of Things. The casting and acting couldn't be better, the dialogue is sharp and witty, the characters well-drawn. Even the face-punch of a twist in the second act could be all right if LaBute's script were tightened up. But the playwright's protracted closure is a killer, and director Stephen DiMenna trails out the off-base final moment way too long. Having been engaged throughout, I became aware in the final two scenes of Shape's 2 3/4-hour length and drove home feeling as suckered as the main character.
Adam is a geeky junior in a liberal arts college in a small town. Sam Rosen delivers the best performance of his young career as the love-struck Adam. An intelligent Lit. Crit. major, Adam meets Evelyn in the museum where he works as an exhibit guard. Being a geek and uncertain, he sort of asks her to step back over the cordoned off area around a statue that she plans to deface as a protest against untruth in art. He tries to reason with her and equivocates; his shift relief is due, and he could just leave, but he begins his tip into headlong love with Evelyn's certainty and flinty sexuality. Bespectacled Adam looks heavy in a sweater and frumpy corduroy jacket, and his mannerisms are goofily awkward. Rosen's Adam embodies geekdom, but he's a geek in the most appealing way.
In contrast, Maggie Chestovich's Evelyn holds absolute views on everything - art, people, intimacy; you name it, she knows it. Evelyn says she's a graduate art student who is working on her final project, an installation-art piece. A slight girl dressed in black, she's a whip who's packed to the roots of her scarlet-striped hair with pretentious views on art. Chestovich absolutely plumbs her character's brittle personality as Evelyn kneads the malleable Adam like modeling clay and begins to refashion him into a hunk.
The other two characters in LaBute's play are mirror images to Adam and Evelyn. Beautiful Zoe Pappas plays Jenny, a thoroughly nice, average student, who has been too shy for the last three years to tell Adam that she likes him. Pappas captures Jenny's everyday ordinariness and naivete in small gestures of awkwardness that made me feel for her character. Jenny's fiancé, Philip, is domineering and macho and Brent Doyle fills the role with panache.
Like this production, LaBute's Shape succeeds on many fronts. He creates believable young characters who reflect the today-world of the new century. Sex is an easy given. The characters live superficial lives where the look of things matters, and everything is available. Except for Adam, no one really reads; references come from television and movies. LaBute also takes a knock at the pretensions that can surround art but, in the final analysis, this is a play about abuse and identity. LaBute fuzzes that in the protracted ending.
For a moment, I actually believed the play had ended right after the dramatic dénouement (which over-indulged in academic psychological explanation), and I felt deeply for Adam. But the protracted final scene closes on something Evelyn whispered to Adam during their initial love-making. I didn't know what the whisper was, and I no longer cared. I'd been shocked. I'd felt for Adam. I wanted out.
The closing scene holds one powerful moment that encapsulates the play's true focus and could have spared the audience minutes of wooly closure: Adam silently picks up his frumpy old corduroy jacket and briefly considers putting it and his old self on again.
The Shape of Things February 8 - March 9. Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m. Sundays, 2:30 p.m.$12 -$15. The Theater Garage , Corner of Franklin and Lyndale Avenues, Minneapolis. Call: 612-343-3390.