The weather hasn't been kind to anyone of late, but a particularly dark cloud seems to have settled over the Hattiloo Theatre this February. The opening weekend of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, an urban blues drama about ghosts of the past and glimpses of the future, was postponed when a cast member was unexpectedly hospitalized. Director Ekundayo Bandele, pulling double duty as the show's chief carpenter and techie, was sidelined by illness when the show finally opened on February 12th. His unrehearsed substitute blew sound cues and ran the light board with all the subtlety of a torturer trying to drag answers out of the audience. I wish that was an unusual circumstance, but tech at the Hattiloo has had a herky-jerky quality all season, reaching back at least as far as the retina-scarring cues in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Bandele wants to make Wilson's work an annual event at his theater, which is an interesting prospect made doubly interesting by last season's knockout production of Fences. But for a variety of reasons that may or may not be related to the show's stuttering start, The Piano Lesson never quite delivers on its promise. A capable if not equally gifted cast struggle with their lines and move about the stage in forced fits and artificial starts. Things only spring to life when Anthony Bell swaggers, stumbles, or barges onto stage as Whinin' Boy, a wandering entertainer trying to give up the blues. But even Bell's winning go at Whinin' Boy — one of the most dynamic performances I've ever witnessed — comes at the expense of Wilson's words, which he butchers with ad-libs. Likewise, Bell's cast mates are constantly upstaged by the sheer force of his personality.
Wilson's play is a meditation on the meaning of legacy, symbolized by a piano with pictures of the family's ancestors carved into it. The piano isn't just covered in pictures, it's also covered in blood, and shame, and horror. Some might even say it's cursed. Boy Willie, played with great force and good humor by Cooli Crawford, wants to sell it and use the money to buy the land his family worked as slaves and sharecroppers. His sister Bernice, played with quiet strength by Mary Pruitt, won't play the instrument for fear of summoning up evil spirits but will shoot anybody who tries to take it away from the family, even Boy Willie.
What Bendele's take on The Piano Lesson lacks in polish, it makes up in charisma. Even the weakest players are imminently watchable as they wrestle with the script's dark humor and troublesome ironies. It's too bad all of the music was cut from this show, because if there was ever a cast that needed to learn how to jam together like musicians, this is it. It's also too bad that Bell, the show's most intriguing personality and an actor I'd like to see more of in the future, is also this Piano Lesson's greatest liability.
Through February 28th
Champagne corks popped this past Valentine's Day to mark Circuit Playhouse's transformation into the Evergreen Theatre, an extension of TheatreWorks.
Jackie Nichols, Playhouse on the Square's executive producer, reflected on Circuit Playhouse's 26 years on Poplar and the 250 productions performed in the converted movie house, including the first American production of The Rocky Horror Show starring musician Larry Raspberry as Dr. Frankenfurter. Rocky Horror was performed in 1977, while the building was still a functioning movie house.
"We anticipate a lot of wonderful theater happening by new and emerging groups," Nichols said, noting that the new space has already been heavily booked. Pat Bogan, who has been with TheatreWorks since it evolved from her work with the Downtown Dream Machine in the '70s, said that, like TheatreWorks, the Evergreen Theatre will be an affordable place for emerging artists to hone their craft and develop new works.
The Evergreen Theatre will officially open next weekend with a production of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues.