Saturday, January 21, 2012

Theatre review: "Through the Night" at City Theatre

In Daniel Beaty’s Through the Night at City Theatre the actor/writer has created a beautiful performance piece like a fabric warming you, clinging to you through 75 minutes, compressing hours during a darkness lit by shining moments.

Beaty’s words interweave several developments, less like stories, more like revelations, full of soft and sweet poetic moments, including rap-suggesting internal rhymes, devoid of fury, rich in color. His body moves with eloquence and grace. Sometimes he sings as if a tender soul brother, embracing the overtones of the notes. And sometimes he resembles a passionate preacher, but one who doesn’t have to pound and stomp to make his points.

I can’t tell you precisely how many characters he personifies, more than six principal ones, fewer than a dozen, I imagine. Who would sit there and take the time to count when what counts is the result, not the virtuosity?

Two sets of fathers and sons as well as two young men try to change their lives for the better. All connect, being part of the same community in a housing project.

Mr. Rogers owns Maxine’s Health Foods, an unsuccessful shop for herbal remedies and healthy meals. His precocious 10 year old son Eric seeks formulas to heal and strengthen anyone with whom he comes in contact. On the other side of the food chain, 300 pound, 60 year old Bishop Sanders imperils his own flesh and blood addicted to HoHos. His other flesh and blood, his son Isaac, an unmarried 40 year old over-achieving music industry executive, questions his own identity. In this rich tapestry is 20 year old ‘Twon, a college-bound high school student, encouraged and mentored by Isaac but who wants to make something of his life on his own. And there is Dre, a recovering addict who cherishes the woman he loves carrying his yet-to-be born child. Dre has sometimes worked at Mr. Rogers' shop.

Beaty also seemingly effortlessly conjures up the women in these lives, never satirizing but rather admiring them for their strength. And sometimes he remarkably plays two sides of the same discourse between fathers and sons, full of definition and clear meaning. Nothing feels designed merely to entertain. And, although the opening night audience justly applauded the riffs and refrains that stood out in separate moments, appropriately, everything was honored with respect, not punctuated by in-the-know laughter.

Yes, this stays serious but not sad, more full of hope than sorrow. I call it art.

Through the Night runs through February 5th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side. 412/431-4400 and

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Theatre review: "Jesus Hopped the A Train" from barebones productions

More and more I’m getting the feeling that barebones productions consistently gravitates to dark, profanity-laden explorations of nasty people. The latest example is Jesus Hopped the A Train, a much admired work from 2000 by Stephen Adly Guirgis. This follows on the grinding heels of violent white trash in Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe and Bug (2010 and 2007), sleazy, greedy salesmen out to destroy each other in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (2009), Jews complicit in Auschwitz murders in The Grey Zone by Tim Blake Nelson (2006) and Bryony Lavery’s Frozen (2005) dwelling on a serial-murdering pedophiliac. These productions always come across as expertly acted and produced with polish and style. Yet, what thinking, what orientation is behind such choices?

This time the play focuses on two killers of limited intelligence, with vocabularies to match, awaiting sentencing while in prison hovered over by a guard who looks for every opportunity to beat the shit out of them.

Yes, this play has been praised for explorations of faith and morality, about taking responsibility for one’s life and deeds, dichotomies between guilt and innocence, about redemption, freedom, good versus evil. You name it; it’s probably there beneath the volatile surface. The script does indeed call forth the dark shadows between black and white, portraying a mixed race cast of characters. While Guirgis exposes all such issues to simmer and burn under a briefly seen sun, he makes few salient points, as if telling things as they are, not how they should be. He has, though, come up with a thorough exploration of two complex and unpredictable main characters seen across the divide between unrepentant, self-assured violence and confused innocence. They seethe with intensity, especially as exceptionally portrayed by two New York actors with major credits.

Essentially this concentrates on dialogue between Lucius Jenkins, a born-again, self-confessed multiple killer and Angel Cruz (uh-uh, an angel on a cross) a confused young Puerto Rican who tried to take the law into his own hands by shooting a religious cult leader who had brainwashed Angel’s closest pal. In two roof cages, where they get one hour’s relief a day from solitary confinement, they heatedly argue about belief in God and about the meaning of what they’ve done which put them there. These don’t seem, though, conclusive, focused exchanges which could provoke us outsiders to ponder the issues. Also there are intermittent scenes showing Angel with his court-assigned attorney whose motivations are more personal than compassionate. Plus she and two prison guards occasionally directly tell the audience what makes them tick.

Raul Castillo’s portrayal of Angel stays vividly alive, calling forth sympathy beneath a constantly combative exterior, tough of necessity, sorrowfully wounded by fate. As Lucius, Edwin Lee Gibson has a far more complicated role to play, superbly bringing out the complex permutations of Lucius’ seeming rationality, his crazy pleasure in killing and his belief that, having chosen God, he lives in some state of grace.

California-based actor Leandro Cano is also in the cast as the brutal guard Valdez and Elena Passarello interprets attorney Mary Jane Hanrahan. Both make their non-stop harshness totally convincing. Meanwhile Derrick Sanders’ direction keeps the staging and pacing constantly dynamic and compelling.

You might find it interesting that Guirgis actually had a close friend who joined a cult and whom he tried, unsuccessfully, to de-program. Guirgis’s resultant anger, he says, made him a lapsed-Catholic re-assessing God. He also was a public school student in Harlem and a violence prevention counselor in New York City prisons. No doubt he knows the facts behind what he says. But I have to wonder, having told us what he thinks about such people, what he’d like us to think while we remain outside, emotionally unconnected to those he portrays.

Equally, I can’t help wondering what barebones wants to tell us, so often calling forth disturbing subjects about people with whom we can neither identify nor empathize.

barebones productions presents Jesus Hopped The A Train through January 29th at The New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East, North Side. 1-888-71TICKETS (1-888 718 4253),