The reflective moments after a funeral open and close August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, the opening production of No Rules Theatre Co.’s 2014-15 season. And that’s wholly appropriate, as the play is an extended memory lesson, bursting with all the tragic lyricism one expects of the man who chronicled the drama of the African-American experience in the twentieth century.
Like Arthur Miller at his best, Wilson’s art elevates the commonplace into myth, weaving the riffs of the human experience—the hopeful promise, dimmed dream, flushed love, drag on dignity—into a poignant tapestry.
Director Michele Shay—a veteran of several Wilson productions, including a Tony-nominated turn in the 1996 Broadway premiere of Seven Guitars—masterfully provokes a bravura performance from the ensemble cast, no easy task with Wilson’s complicated script and nearly three-hour running time.
The play does feel long but it’s time well spent. Shay paces the drama with a mostly easy-going gait, allowing the terrific cast the time and space to act Wilson’s blues, with all the form’s frustration, weariness, humor and yearning.
Seven Guitars is set in Pittsburgh’s black working-class Hill District in 1948. Its lyrical depiction is more important than its plot, which concerns the struggle of one Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Ro Boddie), a talented upstart musician eager to ignite a recording career and the group of friends he associates with in the brief time after he’s let out from the “workhouse,” until his foretold demise.
He’s already got the invitation from a big shot record producer in Chicago, and now all he needs is a little cash to retrieve his electric guitar from the pawn shop, collect Vera (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), the lover he walked out on earlier and his two friends and musical sidemen—Canewell (Wayne Bennett) and Red Carter (Aaron Moreland)—get on up to the big city “where a black man can live” and take advantage of the opportunities.
The ensemble is rounded off by the wizened landlady Louise (Bonita Brisker), her niece Ruby, fresh off the bus from Alabama, (Alexis Cash), and Louise’s schizophrenic tenant, Hedley (Ron Dortch), an older Haitian immigrant who switches from doddering to frightening like tones on a scale.
The actors—the seven guitars of the title—work beautifully together to strum out a song of eloquence and anguish. Compelling in his or her own right, the cast effortlessly play off one another’s storytelling and gaiety, and when the song turns from joy to anger, and finally murder, the cast matches the mood note for note.
Bennett is excellent as the endearing Canewell, funny and sensitive, and full of good-natured wisdom: how to cook collard greens, how to tell an Alabama rooster from its Mississippi cousin (the Ole Miss bird refused to crow during “slavery time”), and the endurance of one-way love.
The apocalyptic Hedley is the show’s make-or-break character, and Dortch pulls the performance off with remarkable precision. The backyard “Lion of Judah” rants about the white man’s oppression and dreams of birthing a black messiah worthy of the likes of Toussaint L’Ouverture; his fevered exclamations could easily become strained, but Dortch keeps him real flesh and blood, balancing a powerful hatred with a heavy conscience.
Closes September 28, 2014
No Rules Theatre Company at
4200 Campbell Avenue,
3 hours with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
This is primarily the men’s show, but the female characters, who can be seen as a composite of one woman at different stages in her life, also shine with the requisite grace, beauty and warmth that complement the men’s ambition and edge. Abbott-Pratt imbues Vera with a grounded intensity and Cash surprises as Ruby, a character easily limited to a throwaway sexpot, notably giving her a three-dimensional depth in key scenes.
The production elements also deserve mention. Harlan Penn splendidly transforms the intimate space of Signature’s ARK theater into an urban backyard, and Collin Ranney costumed the actors beautifully in appealing period dress. The women’s hair styles were especially distinctive.
Wilson once said that he wanted to place the culture of black America on stage as sustenance. You may have to set aside some room for appetite, but No Rules Theatre Co.’s production of Seven Guitars is a full meal.
Seven Guitars by August Wilson. Directed by Michele Shay. Featuring Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Wayne Bennett, Ro Boddie, Bonita Brisker, Alexis Cash, Ron Dortch and Aaron Moreland. Scenic design: Harlan Penn. Lighting design: Latrice Lovett. Costume design: Collin Ranney. Sound design: James Bigbee Garver. Fight choreography: Casey Kaleba. Voice and dialect coach: Caroline Stefanie Clay. Musical director: Darius Smith. Produced by No Rules Theatre Company. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.
Closes September 28