In anniversary seasons, Wilson comes to Penumbra and Chekhov to the Guthrie
In anniversary seasons, Wilson comes to Penumbra and Chekhov to the Guthrie
Seven Guitars sings perfectly pitched blues on the Penumbra stage
August Wilson dips into the blues to find the music and inspiration for his plays and, of all his work, none is more lyrical, tragic and transcendent than Seven Guitars. Under Clinton Turner Davis's sure direction, Penumbra's seven-member ensemble sets the poetry of Wilson's words strumming in the call-and-response-rhythms of the blues as they unwind the story of Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, a talented but flawed bluesman who has just had a first hit record.
Guitars opens on Ken Evans' wonderfully detailed set of the dirt yard of a shabby 1948 rooming house in Pittsburgh's Hill District just after Floyd's funeral. In an often funny, always engaging and finally shattering flashback, the play traces the days immediately preceding Floyd's funeral and follows the vortex of African American hope, frustration, elation and desperation that spirals towards his death.
Floyd comes to vigorous life in the hands of David Allen Anderson. The musician has just spent 90 days in the workhouse on a false charge of loitering. He's penniless, and his white producer has bilked him out of the royalties for his record. His prize electric guitar is in hock in the pawn shop; Vera, the girl he loves, will not commit to him; and his two sidemen, Canewell and Red, refuse to return to Chicago with him to make a second record. Anderson's Floyd is all man. As he makes sweet love to Vera, kids with the guys, or explodes into violent jealousy, we see how Floyd is a hero whose troubles arise as much from within himself as from the struggle to make it in a white man's world that's stacked against him.
Harmonica-playing Canewell is the one man who is not bound to self-destruct, and Malik B. El-Amin finds his character's steady wit and lyricism. In contrast, Shawn Hamilton's drummer, Red, is a flamboyant dandy, an opportunist, who has already had a run-in with the law "for having too much money."
Incipient violence hums beneath the action of Guitars and finds a dark focus in Hedley, a West Indian roomer who scratches a living by keeping and slaughtering chickens and selling their meat. In a moving performance, James A. Williams taps something both primal and vulnerable in unstable Hedley, as he rants and prophesies in a jumble of African myth, Biblical legend, Messianic vision and insight.
Penumbra celebrates its 25th anniversary with a season of Wilson plays and, like Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Two Trains Running before it, Guitars is another master production. Each player is an instrument in the play's ensemble; they riff in concert and in virtuoso solos as they wrap these shattered lives in story. But, like singing the blues, there's healing in the telling. Even as Guitars returns to the post-funeral scene, it closes on a note of tentative renewal.
Seven Guitars April 10 - May 4. Thursdays 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 8:00 p.m. Saturdays 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Sundays 2:00 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.
Photo: Act One, Two, Ltd.
Like a Janus facing forwards and backwards, artistic director Joe Dowling points the Guthrie into the future as he launches the theater's 40th anniversary season, and he looks back into the past. He plans a new, comprehensive three-stage theater complex on the Mississippi, and he begins the season with a production of Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters, the most celebrated play of Guthrie founder Tyrone Guthrie's 1963 inaugural season in Minneapolis.
Critics raved about Tyrone Guthrie's staging of Three Sisters on Tanya Moiseiwitsch's revolutionary thrust stage. "Tyrone Guthrie's staging, Tanya Moiseiwitsch's decors and the company's acting are splendidly fused in a common purpose," intoned Howard Taubman in the New York Times. With this 2003 production of Three Sisters, Dowling celebrates Guthrie's vision for a theater of artistic excellence, far from commercialism of New York, and he dedicates the production to the memory of Moiseiwitsch, who died in London on February 18 at age 88.
Moiseiwitsch, a British set and costume designer, collaborated closely with Tyrone Guthrie, with whom she shared an ambition to free drama from the uni-dimensional proscenium arch stage and to bring it to new life on an open stage that functioned like an Elizabethan stage. She designed the dramatic thrust stages at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario and at the Guthrie and influenced stage design around the world. Her unfussy sets embodied the visual metaphor of a play and, since she also designed the costumes, which she textured so that they could be sculpted by light, she presented a unified visual aesthetic.
Dowling does not intend to recreate the 1963 performance. "That would be impractical," he said, "but the basic stage will have Moiseiwitsch's original design." When Moiseiwitsch left the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, as it was still called in 1966, her polygonal, stepped, thrust stage was adjusted to be more flexible.
The 1963 production of Three Sisters is thought to be the first on a thrust stage. Asked what the problems are in directing a play designed for a proscenium stage, on a thrust, Dowling said, "The problems are with the geography of the house and how to create a world that oppresses the three girls. But the problems are outweighed by opportunities. As director, I don't have the concern of creating stage pictures, and the actors are freed to focus on the emotional life of the action."
Three Sisters tells of Olga, Masha, Irina and their brother, Andrei, who carry their fates within themselves. They endure dull lives in a provincial Russian town where their father once commanded the garrison. But he has died, and the garrison is about to move away. The four siblings were raised in Moscow, and the sisters cling to a dream of returning to the capital where they believe they could live fulfilled lives. Olga, the eldest, is stuck in the routine life of a schoolmistress. Restless Masha is mired in a marriage to a pleasant but dull teacher, and Irina lives in idealistic hope, even as spinsterhood cobwebs around her.
Chekhov requires solid ensemble acting. Businessman and arts advocate, John Cowles, who helped to bring the Guthrie to Minneapolis, remembers the 1963 production for the sense of unity among the cast. "My visual picture is of movement like a slow medieval dance on the thrust stage, in brilliant ensemble playing," he said. "The serf's role was just as important as the head of household's. Everyone was strong."
Dowling has consciously chosen a cast from the Guthrie stable of actors that includes favorites like Julie Briskman, Barbara Bryne, Richard S. Iglewski, Stephen Pelinski and Stephen Yoakim. "Most of this cast have played together again and again," Dowling said. "Years of knowing each other on stage creates a strong sense of ensemble."
Former Minneapolis Tribune theater critic Dan Sullivan reviewed the 1963 production and recalls his sense of relief that Tyrone Guthrie had sprung Three Sisters loose from the gloom in which it had traditionally been played.
There is a lot of humor in the play," said Dowling, "but it's not farce. The comedy arises out of character and situation. It's that balance Chekhov finds between humor and sadness that makes him unique. It's so like life."
Dowling is delighted to be honoring Moiseiwitsch with Three Sisters in the Guthrie's 40th year. "Tanya made a real contribution to the theater," he said. "She's one of the true theater visionaries of the last century. She saw that freeing the play from the 19th century proscenium arch was going to open up all kinds of possibilities."
The Three Sisters runs April 25 - May 24. Tuesdays through Fridays 7:30 p.m. Saturdays 1:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. $16 -$37. Guthrie Theater, 725, Vineland Place, Minneapolis. Call: 612-377-2224, or Toll Free 877-44-STAGE. Online: www.guthrietheater.org.