Tag Archives: Dominic Weaver

BNS Productions’ “Two Trains Running” Runs at Full Steam With a Deep Cast

Review: Two Trains Running

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Like all of the other plays I’ve seen in August Wilson’s epic Pittsburgh Cycle ­ and I’ve now seen nine of the 10 – Two Trains Running is about community struggle and personal redemption. Each of the dramas digs into one of decades of the 20th century, and after Brand New Sheriff began its Wilson explorations with Jitney and the 1950s, their sophomore effort at Spirit Square takes us into the turbulent 1960s.

With so much memorable social and civil rights upheaval in that decade, not to mention the horrifying Birmingham church bombing and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and MLK, it’s no surprise that community struggles are more at the forefront of this Wilson work than the others. As it was in the ‘50s, when we looked on the city through Jitney, Pittsburgh is continuing its predatory campaign to demolish the predominantly black Hill District in the name of urban renewal. After Becker’s gypsy cab depot in Jitney, the city is moving in on Memphis Lee’s Restaurant.

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Another young man is returning from incarceration and trying start a new life – but not quietly this time. Sterling is handing out leaflets for an upcoming Black Power rally and befriending Hambone, a mentally handicapped person who was cheated years ago by the white grocer across the street. At the same time, Sterling is seeking out a job or at least a lead from everyone else he speaks to at the restaurant. Standing up for other black people cheated by a white system – and for himself – Sterling is clearly a powder keg that will soon go off.

Memphis estimates that he’ll be back in prison in three weeks. As the days pass and he sees more of Sterling, who grabs whatever he can, Memphis will revise that estimate downwards.

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Sterling teaches Hambone a Black Power slogan, but Memphis isn’t so easily swayed. It’s the central issue for black people of that time, especially here in 1969 after the MLK murder. Do they wait patiently and peacefully for what is rightfully theirs, marching and petitioning to make their wishes known – or do they resort to the same kind of violence that kept their people down? Memphis insists on doing things the right way, holding out for a fair price from the city for his property, firing the craven lawyer who advises him to cave.

Looking at Memphis’s regular customers, you’ll find additional evidence that MLK’s ideas didn’t die with him. Nobody intends to join the rally. A more popular road to self-fulfillment is winning the daily numbers game at odds of 600-1, and it’s Wolf who haunts the place, taking all bets, often through unauthorized use of the restaurant’s phone. The sagely and cynical Holloway will play a number as readily as Memphis or Sterling, but to change your life, Holloway recommends a visit to Aunt Ester, the 322-year-old soothsayer who lurks behind a faithfully guarded red door in an alley down the block.

Risa, the troubled waitress who has scarred herself, disparages the men who throw their money away on the numbers. To her mind, they’d get a better return from their quarters if they just dropped them in the jukebox. Until recently, she’s been a follower of the Prophet Samuel, but currently her rock and redeemer is lying in state across the street at West’s Funeral Home. She has no desire to see the man in a casket, but Sterling goes through the long lines waiting to see the Prophet and snatches flowers from the site and presents them to Risa, whose head he’s trying to turn.

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It’s another illustrative instance of Sterling flouting decorum and convention. Why should her qualms get in the way of enjoying a few beautiful flowers that would die and be trashed in the next couple of days if she weren’t caring for them? West certainly doesn’t notice or mind, Sterling maintains. It’s true. When West comes by every day, he’s looking for Risa to serve him another cup of coffee and Memphis to accept his latest lowball offer for the restaurant.

The parallel rituals are significant, two of the sparkplugs that keep Wilson’s drama humming. The grocer fends off Hambone’s daily demand for the ham that was promised to him, and Memphis refuses to allow West to steal his property away for a bargain price.

BNS and director Corlis Hayes, in their second Wilson outing at Duke Energy Theater, are getting really good at this. Although smaller than the design the playwright describes, James Duke’s set captures the spirit of the time beautifully, perfectly calibrating the restaurant’s waning appeal so that we see it as a warm, welcoming place. Or at least we can imagine it that way, for Tim Bradley as Memphis is not at all the deferential restauranteur, arguing with customers, barking at Wolf for running numbers on his phone, bragging about duping West, bossing Risa unnecessarily, and expressing general disdain for his lazy people.

That’s all very much on the page, so Bradley finds ways to keep us empathizing with Memphis. Hayes and LeShea Stukes have far more latitude with Risa as we watch the waitress going about her job and reacting to various advances. Stukes plays her as sullen and cynical, allowing Risa’s resentment of her boss’s scolding tone to occasionally surface. Seeing her smile late in Act 2 is like seeing the sun come out after fives days of stormy weather. By the time that happens, we may suspect that the jukebox being out of order is troubling Risa as much as Prophet Samuel’s death and her boss’s bossiness.

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Devin Clark struts around as Wolf like an arrogant sleazeball, but there are more depths, contours, and vulnerabilities to him than the iconic Sportin’ Life as he talks about himself and strikes out with Risa. Ramsey Lyric’s costume designs certainly help Clark strut his stuff, but they also help us to chart Jonavan Adams’s progress in his portrayal of Sterling, fresh out of prison. Hayes and Adams have worked together before on Wilson’s plays, so they both know the strength, the brashness, and the seething frustrations of these strapping young men. Trust me, Adams’ work as Sterling is even more powerful and nuanced than his 2017 outing as Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

BNS continues to have admirable depth in their Wilson lineups. You can understand why Jermaine A. Gamble would gravitate to a role as salty as Holloway, whose sharp observations are mixed with a strong belief in the supernatural, expressed in an unwavering advocacy of Aunt Ester’s powers. Gamble makes Holloway a reasonable man, good reason for having this kind of restaurant around. He’s the neighborhood. But the disruptive Hambone, restricted to little more than one repeated line, wouldn’t jump out at you as a plum role to audition for. Dominic Weaver makes it one in a performance of astonishing intensity and authenticity.

It was probably a group effort to make Weaver look so frightfully grubby as Hambone, but Lyric and Hayes draw my kudos for the sensation West makes each time he enters. Wilson prescribes that the undertaker is always dressed in an all-black outfit, including black gloves that he wears indoors, but designers only add a black hat in about half the productions I’ve tracked on YouTube – and none of them are as imposing as the formal chapeau Lyric chooses for Sultan Omar El-Amin. Hayes layers onto this formality, decreeing that El-Amin must meticulously spread a napkin across his lap at each sitting.

With such outré ammo, El-Amin steals each of his scenes without raising his voice to a level that might lead you to seriously suspect that he doubts his own power. By the manner he holds his cup and saucer, you’d think he was at high tea! From a man who has specialized in portrayals of angry, resentful, and mixed-up young men, El-Amin’s confidently restrained performance as an established 60-year-old widower is a stunner.

Two Trains Running at Spirit Square is a good place to climb aboard the complete Pittsburgh Cycle that BNS is planning to present in coming seasons. You won’t miss a thing because BNS is planning to reprise its previous production of Jitney in May. Then they plan to present Radio Golf, the final drama in the Cycle – and Wilson’s last completed play – next season. Two Trains is not the last stop, but you’ll need to catch it this week before it closes.

 

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“Sex With Strangers” Is a Steamy, Brainy Brew

Review:  Sex With Strangers

By Perry Tannenbaum

I can’t tell you exactly how many scenes in Sex With Strangers end with heavy petting and preludes to lovemaking, but the number seemed to me sufficient to ensure that playwright Laura Eason wasn’t misleading or overpromising in her title. In case you thought otherwise when you saw this Warehouse Theatre production at Spirit Square, Eason had a hedge.

The title turns out to be the brainchild of one of her characters, author-entrepreneur Ethan Kane, who has parleyed a series of blog posts into a bestselling book and an upcoming movie version that he’s hurrying to complete a screenplay for. Sealing the slick commerciality of his burgeoning franchise, Kane has written them all under the penname of Ethan Strange.

Kane’s serial posts stem from an idea that likely struck him at a bar: to have sex with 50 strange women over the course of a year – and write up each of his conquests in vivid, imaginative detail. Naturally, all of these escapades began, approximately weekly, at a bar. This wheeling-and-dealing serial seducer shows up in a Northern Michigan cabin, ostensibly seeking the peace and quiet needed to finish his screenplay but actually stalking Olivia Lago, who is already occupying this Airbnb retreat in the middle of a fierce winter blizzard.

While the blizzard makes it more difficult for Olivia to turn Ethan away, plowing ahead through it is the first tip-off we get about Ethan’s powerful persistence. Through a mutual friend, he has heard about Olivia’s work as an author and sincerely admires the single book she has published – enough to think that posting her unpublished work on his new website could be a pathway to redeeming himself from his smutty, unsavory past.

Olivia is not nearly as complex. Or adventurous. After her first novel received mixed reviews, she became pathologically discouraged, retreating into teaching and thinking of her more recent writing as a hobby. She balks at the idea of Ethan even seeing her new work, let alone exposing it to the scrutiny of the worldwide web. Ah, but you don’t serially seduce 50 women without possessing charms and attractions, right? And Ethan can also offer literary and Hollywood connections.

Louise Robertson last directed for the Warehouse in 2010, when their production of The Road to Mecca capped the company’s first season at their Cornelius storefront and put them firmly on the Charlotte theatre map. She casts and directs no less adroitly here, calling forth layered performances from Cynthia Farbman Harris and Dominic Weaver. There are numerous types of contrasts and conflicts to mull over in Eason’s script, but perhaps the most precisely nuanced clash is the generation gap. Olivia is older than Ethan, not at all savvy about eBooks and uploading files to Amazon, yet she isn’t so much older that a sexual spark between them cannot quickly ignite.

There are other frictions roiling in their relationship. Ethan’s excess of sexual experience – some of it made up for his posts, some of it callous – and his penchant for publicizing his intimacies make Olivia suspicious. On the other hand, Ethan suspects that Olivia has a condescending attitude toward his writing talents, yielding to him physically only because of what he is giving her professionally. There’s enough manipulation and betrayal on both sides to keep us guessing – and ambivalent about rooting for them as a couple.

Harris isn’t exactly delicate or fragile, so her vulnerability as Olivia isn’t instantly obvious when she lets Ethan enter out of the cold. There is also considerable depth to her artistic discouragement, mixed with a lingering sense of embittering self-worth, that makes her more accessible to Ethan’s physical advances than to his professional outreach. It’s quite a study as Harris more gradually allows Weaver to awaken Olivia’s self-esteem and daring.

Weaver shows us an Ethan who can be viewed as the polar opposite of Olivia: cocky, confident, and articulate on the surface; bitter, brooding, and self-doubting at his core. The best of Weaver emerges when Ethan discovers just how high he has enabled Olivia to fly. But then, I’m a guy. For the women at Duke Energy Theatre, the best of Weaver may well have come across when he ripped off his shirt. Happened more than once.

For the second week of their run, Warehouse returns to their storefront home in Cornelius, where Sex With Strangers might nestle a little more comfortably. At their final Spirit Square performance last Saturday, they ran out of playbills, evidently unprepared for the heavier turnout at the larger venue. Dealing with the larger stage also seemed slightly problematical, with scene changes eating up more clock than I’m accustomed to. Ben Pierce’s lighting design traveled well, but I was less satisfied with his sets. A glance at the playbill was necessary to inform me that, during intermission, we had moved from that Michigan cabin to Olivia’s Chicago apartment. Although the painting we saw in Act 1 had changed, it was hanging in the exact same spot.

Overall, I found it a pleasant surprise to encounter as much brains as body heat in Sex With Strangers. The shoptalk won’t be above the heads of theatergoers decently schooled in lit and mildly attuned to contemporary authors. Those who don’t know that FSG stands for Farrar, Straus and Giroux will at least get that Olivia and Ethan are talking about a prestigious publisher that prints honest-to-goodness hardbound books.

It’s refreshing to see protagonists onstage who still care about such things – to see writers shown as emotional, impulsive, and even hormone-driven. We often are.