18 January 2013

'Seven Guitars' (2006)

[On 14 December 2012, I published my performance report on the Signature Theatre revival of August Wilson’s Piano Lesson, one of the most excellent theater experiences I’ve ever had.  I noted in passing in that report that I had seen Wilson’s Seven Guitars, directed by the same artist, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, at that theater in 2006.  (STC devoted its 2006-07 season to the works of Wilson, who had died in October 2005, as the company and the writer were planning the retrospective.)  Though that season predates the launching of ROT, I was writing play reports for a select audience at the time, so  I thought it would be an interesting exercise to reach back into my archive and publish the old report on Seven Guitars, the play in Wilson’s American Century Cycle that covers the 1940s. Written in 1995, it’s the play that immediately follows The Piano Lesson in the cycle’s sequence and is the only play Wilson wrote in the series that’s directly connected to another one: 1999’s King Hedley II, which revisits some of the same characters in 1985.]

Well, Diana Multare, my subscription partner, and I managed to get to see August Wilson’s Seven Guitars Friday evening, 13 October, at the Peter Norton Space—but it was touch-and-go for a moment.  We just seem to have bad luck with that show!  Our originally-scheduled performance last month was canceled at the last minute—we had actually gotten to the theater before we learned—because a member of the cast got sick and Signature Theatre doesn’t use understudies.  Friday night, an actor had an accident on stage (or just off stage—I’m not sure where it happened exactly) and apparently gave himself a small cut just above his right eye.  They had to stop the scene—one early in the show—so he could exit and have it attended to backstage.  Then they returned about 15 minutes later, rewound a few beats, and picked up again.  Since I haven’t seen any other performances, I don’t have the basis for a real judgment, but as far as I could tell, the work was as strong as it probably would have been if they hadn’t had the mishap and the interruption.

I suppose that’s the big “news” for this show—the acting (and the directing) was superb.  This was one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen in a very long time—everyone was solid, alive, and in touch with one another; no one seemed to be overshadowing anyone else, and they were all in the same play.  I’ll single out two performers, but mostly because of their characters—though, of course, it’s important to add that the actors communicated those characters exceptionally.  First, Kevin T. Carroll, who plays Canewell, just seemed to be in a  kind of special spotlight (not literally, of course).  I can’t really say why his performance stood out for me—he was just real, though so were his comrades, and at the same time, special.  I’m going to take a wild-ass guess here, but what it felt like to me was that Carroll wasn’t doing straight Stanislavsky, with all that inside work.  It seemed as if he was working from some portion of the British method, which is more technical.  Not exclusively—he didn’t come off as technical.  You can often tell when one actor in a cast is working externally while the rest are working internally.  No, what I felt was that he somehow blended the two techniques so that he enhanced the Stanislavskian verisimilitude so that his Canewell was more sharply etched.  I don’t even know if that makes any sense.  (This is the role for which Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the director of this revival, got his supporting-actor Tony.)

The other actor who stood out was Charles Weldon who plays Hedley.  The character is a little contrived—Wilson makes him slightly nuts so that he can get away with being oversized and outrageous—but Weldon pulls it off marvelously.  (I will cavil that his accent was a little confusing.  At first I thought the character was West Indian—I saw this play back when it was on Broadway in ’96, but I don’t recall this aspect of the role—but I realized from the lines that he’s from Louisiana, and it’s Cajun-spiced speech—bayou English, I guess (as opposed to Louis Armstrong “Southern Brooklyn.”  It wasn’t a significant problem.)  Hedley, of course, is the character that connects to the ‘80s play in the series (Seven Guitars is set in 1948), King Hedley II.  (One of the women in Seven Guitars is pregnant, and even though Hedley—whose actual first name is King—isn’t the father, the woman says she’ll name the child after him; that would make the child ”King Hedley II.”)

By the way, there’s a cop series on now, The Wire on Showtime cable.  The actor who plays Floyd Barton, the focal character of Seven Guitars, is Lance Reddick who plays Lt.—now Capt.—Daniels in that show.  (He’s the actor who had the accident at the start of the performance.)

Seven Guitars is really a study in Wilson’s work.  He writes terrific characters—characters that actors can just devour—and he captures a milieu, both a moment in time and a place in the world, that sparkles and shines.  Santiago-Hudson and the actors nailed this just about perfectly, I’d say—with tremendous assistance from Richard Hoover’s set.  (I remember complaining about an Arena production of Awake and Sing! a while back that the cast didn’t seem to be living in the play's world.  That was decidedly not true of this troupe.)  Wilson also writes soaring dialogue that is absolutely vernacular prose poetry.  It sounds both natural and extraordinary at the same time.  And he conjures wonderful scenes, little moments of truth and life that are simply magic on stage.  But his plots are rudimentary and meandering.  He doesn’t tell stories—which is certainly his right as a dramatist; he shoots word-photographs, snapshots of a certain world.  It can get a little frustrating watching as he lets his plays go off on little side trips or stay put for a little extra while.  (Wilson’s plays aren’t short.  He’s also not an editor.)  And even when his plot does come to fruition, it’s not necessarily a surprise or a particularly significant event.  The journey, not the destination, is his focus.  But that can be hard on the spectator, I think.  (I remember saying to my companion after seeing Fences with James Earle Jones that if it weren’t for Jones’s performance, the play wouldn’t be very interesting because so little actually happens.  I can’t prove it’s related, but shortly after Jones was replaced by Billie Dee Williams on 2 February 1988, the play closed—26 June.)

One costume question, however:  When did seamless stockings arrive on the market?  In one scene, one of the women strikes a deliberately provocative pose and asks, “Are my stockings straight?”  But they were seamless, so how could anyone really tell?  In 1948, wouldn’t women still have been wearing stockings with seams?  Small point.

In the end, though, I’m very glad I managed to see the production.  It takes an exceptional production to overcome Wilson’s dramaturgical problems, and this one qualifies, no question. 

The next Wilson at the Signature, which I’m not seeing until December, is Two Trains Running, which I also saw on Broadway (with Laurence Fishburn).  I’ve heard that the regular run was sold out within a few days of opening the sales to the public (since Diana and I subscribe, we get advanced notice to book our seats), the run was extended, and the extension is sold out.  (The regular runs are all $15 seats this season due a subsidy the Signature got.  The extensions, however, go for $55 a pop.)   King Hedley II is the third play in the season, and I haven’t seen that one before.  (Actually, I’ve been expecting some theater to announce a presentation of Wilson’s complete cycle since his death, but so far no one I’ve heard about has done so.  My mom told me, though, that the Kennedy Center has announced a series of staged readings of all the plays next year.)
[When I wrote this report, which  I sent out on 22 October 2006, I hadn’t established the format I try to use now, which includes, among other elements, a précis of the play’s production history and a survey of the press response.  So here’s a little of what’s left out above:

[Seven Guitars premiered on 21 January 1995, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and then opened at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston on 15 September. The play débuted on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre on 28 March 1996 under the direction of Lloyd Richards.  It ran for a total of 188 performances, closing on 8 September, winning the 1996 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play and garnering nominations for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 1996 Drama Desk Award for Best Play, and the 1996 Tony Award for Best Play.  Seven Guitars was revived at STC in the above-reported staging, which started in previews on 31 July 2006 and ran from 24 August to 7 October.  The production won a 2007 Obie Award for Roslyn Ruff, who played Berniece in The Piano Lesson, for her performance as Vera.

[In the New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote that the “rich, music-drenched drama” was revived “with the intimacy and warmth of a fraternal embrace” by director Santiago-Hudson and a cast of “seven ensemble members whose characters you come to know as if you had been seeing them every day for years.”  Brantley summed up his assessment by saying that “this production could scarcely be bettered as a reminder of the life force that courses through every word.”  Joe Dziemianowicz called the revival “superb” in New York’s Daily News, staged “with assurance” by Santiago-Hudson and Frank Scheck of the New York Post wrote that Santiago-Hudson “provided a perfectly pitched production” for the play’s “diffuse narrative [which] is rambling and unfocused” but “features rich dialogue and characterizations, and displays a texture and authenticity rarely seen.”  Michael Feingold of the Village Voice reported that Santiago-Hudson “directed this revival with colloquial ease and speed, steering carefully past the temptation, ever present in Wilson's scripts, to turn oratorical.”  In Variety, David Rooney asserted that “while Santiago-Hudson has a firm hold on the language and an elegant sense of stage composition, his weaker narrative and thematic grasp point up the play's flaws.”  Time Out New York’s David Cote declared that “Santiago-Hudson’s magisterial but exuberant production revels in bone-deep, heartfelt performance and the infectious, stirring musicality” but in New York magazine, Jeremy McCarter demurred that STC’s Seven Guitars was only “a sometimes gratifying new revival” because, he pronounced, “a really satisfying revival needs something close to perfection—closer than this, anyway.”

[The STC August Wilson Season went on to present Two Trains Running (7 November 2006-28 January 2007), the 1991 play that’s set in 1969, and King Hedley II (20 February-22 April 2007).  I have reports on both of those performances as well, of course, and I may post them on ROT at some future point as it seems appropriate or interesting.  As Fats Waller famously used to say: “One never knows, do one?”] 

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