Posts Tagged ‘Seattle Repertory Theater’

Review – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – National Theater

January 31, 2016

There are three playwrights whose works I collect obsessively, aiming for “the complete set.” Shakespeare isn’t one of them, oddly enough … but Ibsen and Pinter are. The third member of this set? American author August Wilson, whose work The Piano Lesson I first saw in a student production at Rutgers University in the mid-nineties. Then when I moved to Seattle, I had the opportunity to see one after another of his works – some of them debuts – at the Seattle Repertory Theater. I saw him hanging out writing at a local coffee shop. He was an icon of American history, a playwright with a compelling vision of documenting the African American experience in the 20th century.

I was afraid I’d never get to see his plays again after moving to the UK and The Pittsburgh Cycle would be forever left with gaps. But to my joy, the Young Vic decided to stage Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 2010, and the game was back on … but with a long, long gap between that show and the National Theater’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which officially opens February 2nd. I couldn’t wait after five years of no Wilson, though, and I went and got a ticket for the first night of previews. It’s nearly the earliest in the cycle and it was the second one he wrote – and its subject, the fabulous (titular) 1920s blues singer, was one who I was eager to see on stage. I mean, this was IT. I was so there.

At the start, musicians Cutler (Clint Dyer), Levee (O-T Fagbenle), Toledo (Lucian Msamati), and Slow Drag (Giles Terera) sit in the green room and warm up while waiting for Ma herself to appear. The play begins to seem like it’s another Waiting for Godot – but with four musicians waiting for eternity to pay them a visit. I stepped back, though, and realized what I was actually seeing on stage: August Wilson giving us a chance to see how African Americans act with each other when they’re not under the gaze of white Americans (in this case the fractious recording studio bosses, Sturdyvant – Stuart McQuarrie – and Irvin – Finbar Lynch). Yeah, there’s some discussions about how black and white Americans deal with each other, but what’s more important is that it’s four men talking philosophy and bullshit, being friends with each other, talking about their aspirations, being themselves in a way that’s impossible to do when under the eye of The Man. Wilson’s given us a gift, a chance to be backstage on a number of levels, and as an audience member, my job was to sit back and enjoy.

This isn’t Beckett redux, though: Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke) does appear, and, oh my, she is SUCH a character, a million megawatts of talent with willpower that could send a rocket to Pluto and back. I can see why Wilson wanted to immortalize her in a play. Seeing a black woman fight to get what’s hers – and pushing back and the ridiculous barriers people try to fence her in with because of her race and gender – was inspirational. I was also amazed to see her toting Dussie Mae, a female groupie (Tamara Lawrance), with her into the recording session – giving us a bit of a chance to see a bit of life on the other side of that power divide. I have no idea to what extent any of this was based on historical evidence or if Wilson just cooked it up in his head – but Wilson (and Lawrance) has created an impressively real character and dynamic, and I was … well, I couldn’t tear my eyes off of the stage. Wow.

The ending … well, you guys know we’re not living in a very nice world, right? And Wilson reminds us that some things haven’t really changed a lot in (nearly) a hundred years, and gives us food for thought. It was a good payout for my financial and time (2:35) investment, and I hope the run is as successful as the quality of the cast and the material deserve.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on January 25th, 2016. It continues through May 18th.)

“The Lover” and “The Collection” – Comedy Theatre

March 11, 2008

Let’s start by saying I like Pinter. I like him a lot. In fact, I have it as a goal to see all plays by Pinter (and he’s not dead yet so there may be more to come, which I’m kind of excited about. New plays by someone I worship! If only I could be so lucky with Ibsen).

I like Pinter because he treats his audience like we’re smart. We don’t need to be spoon-fed, we don’t need extensive back story (because well-written characters make it for themselves when they’re on stage). We’re intelligent, skilled, thinking audiences who can draw their own conclusions about what happened on the stage without having to be told how we should feel about it at the end (let us all cringe about Neil Simon and most of the touchy-feely crap Sharon Ott produced at the Seattle Rep).

In fact, Pinter often leaves enough holes that his plays are little puzzles, and I feel that it’s my duty, as the person he is writing for, to struggle my way through them when I find myself not sure about something that I just saw. Fortunately, I’ve got the rest of my life to think about them if I want, but I’m grateful that even if I don’t get the answers, at least I’ve got things running through my head that are worth debating with other people after the show, when half of the time I come out of the theater going, “Right, done. Can you pass me the London Paper?” So off we headed (Whinger_Phil, J, and Sue), four hard-core theater fans, for what promised to be a grown-ups night at the theater. (And I must say there were no people talking loudly about the show like there was at Dealer’s Choice – it was a much more savvy audience.)

Pinter performed by English actors at the top of their game is ace. J and I had even seen Gina McKee before, in another Pinter production at the Donmar (Old Times), and she was glowing and witty as the wife in The Lover. Her banter with her husband was incredibly naturalistic, without any of the car-changing-gears clunkiness of Pinter done badly; even the silences were handled easily, breaking at the point when you would expect people to finally speak to each other. We laughed most of the way through, and when things got tense, we were really on the edge of our seat. It was a puzzle; we did not know what the solution would be, and watching them work their way through it was great.

The second half had us in for a Pinter take on Rashomon, in which several people have very different takes on the same events. With the married couple acting in the same space as the, er, male couple (their relationship wasn’t made clear but I was pretty sure the younger half, a very yummy looking Charlie Cox, was a rent boy), it was a bit difficult to figure out what the relationship of the four was – and just when you got that sorted out, the various people started crossing lines again.

So I walked out of the theater not knowing who had done what to whom in the second piece, and then today realized I apparently missed something glaringly obvious about the first play that totally changes the meaning of pretty much everything I saw. I’m not going to spell it out for you, but I should say that getting a program would be a good thing for me now and then, if only I wasn’t so damned cheap.

At any rate, if you’re going to blow your money on theater tickets (they can be had for 25 quid but I saw nothing anywhere advertising them for less) and you like a good puzzle, I highly recommend this set of plays. It was a great night out, the acting was top of the line, and you’ll never look at bongos the same way again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, March 10th, 2008.)