LOOKING BACK ON THE BEST OF LOCAL STAGES, 2018

El Chupacabra terrorizes the alternate reality of a cartoonist turned comic book hero, in the 2018 Two River Theater production EL COQUÍ ESPECTACULAR AND THE BOTTLE OF DOOM. Photo by Richard Termine

Published in the Asbury Park Press, December 28 2018

Star-powered casts — and a set of new and diverse voices — set the pace for the live theater stages of Monmouth and Ocean counties in the calendar year 2018. The area served by the Asbury Park Press continued to draw the attentions and the talents of some top-shelf pros, even as its many creative crannies proved that the most interesting things can occur in the most unlikely of venues. Here are a handful of the Great Performances and all-around Good Things that we happened across in the year that was.

New dramas

Bemoaning the fact that comic book characters seem to be hijacking the entire mass culture? Well, get over it, because back at the top of the year, Red Bank’s Two River Theater set the pace with a “superhero play” of supercharged energy: the intriguingly titled El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom. Emerging from Two River’s annual Crossing Borders festival of new Latinx plays, the play by Matthew Barbot succeeded where the mighty Spidey and Superman fell short in their respective musical misadventures; investing its story (of a young unemployed Puerto Rican-American artist turned self-styled costumed crimefighter) with a choreographed visual verve that played, under the direction of Jose Zayas, like a musical minus the music. Throw in a layered plot that segued smoothly between the alternate realities of the dual-identity protagonist, with projected images that heightened the shift between parallel worlds, and the result was a dazzling cultural satire that compared favorably with the company’s trailblazing premiere production of the musical phenomenon “Be More Chill.”

Over at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, some new faces arrived in town with April’s production of Chloe Hung’s Issei, He Say — and those newcomers had a compelling story to tell, in the Chinese-Canadian TV writer’s semi-autobiographical account of an immigrant family’s struggles with assimilation, aspirations, and the next door neighbor, an elderly gentleman of Japanese descent. As the play’s 12 year old central character, Christina Liang headed a superb cast in a drama that placed a perfectly constructed, intimately scaled frame around the big issues of blinding prejudice, national tragedies, home-front secrets, and the things people use to forge alliances in the darkness. Continue reading

A ‘HEDLEY’ THAT’S FIT FOR A KING, IN RED BANK

Blake Morris and Harvy Blanks co-star in the Two River Theater production of  August Wilson’s KING HEDLEY II, now onstage in Red Bank. (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Published in the Asbury Park Press, November 23 2018

“I know right from wrong,” insists the title character in King Hedley II, the play by August Wilson that’s onstage now at Two River Theater — clarifying that with, “I know what’s right for ME.”

Presented inside the theater’s smaller “black box” Marion Huber performance space, Hedley finds the Red Bank-based professional stage company now fully halfway through the  late playwright’s celebrated “Century Cycle” — a collection of ten dramas, each set in a different decade, that view the African American experience through the prism of characters in Wilson’s hometown Hill District of Pittsburgh. For the play that’s chronologically second-to-last in the timeline — if not necessarily in the order of presentation by Two River — the company has assembled a skilled group of frequent collaborators (as well as some supremely talented new blood) in the service of a script that addresses such sprawling themes as love, loss, legacy, dreams, honor, betrayal, the pursuit of happiness, and downright biblical levels of retribution, from the vantage point of two adjoining back yards.  

As framed by Michael Carnahan’s set design, it’s a place where folks tend to put their most intimate business, their hopes for the future, and the pent-up demons of decades past out on full display. And, while there’s much that is constant in this place, Hedley finds the Reagan-era 1980s casting its shadow over the decaying, transitioning neighborhood. The image of the grinning Gipper beams out from the periphery; the music is Michael Jackson and Grandmaster Melle Mel — and “Aunt Ester,” the quasi-mystical presence who hovers over so many of Wilson’s works, has reportedly just passed at 366 years of age, taking a last living link to a people’s history with her.

Back home from a stint in Western State Penitentiary — and anxious to stake his own claim to the go-go 80s action, by opening a video store with a specialty in kung fu epics — is King (Blake Morris), a still-young man whose impulse to put things right ranges from wanting to start a family with girlfriend Tonya (Brittany Bellizeare), to nurturing a garden from the hardscrabble soil of the yard. Unfortunately, the path to business success runs through the peddling of stolen refrigerators, as well as other schemes enacted with his close friend Mister (Charlie Hudson III) — and, as becomes all too clear, the beef and the bloody conflicts of the past are as impossible to escape as the darker aspects of King’s nature.

In for a visit and a friend’s funeral is King’s mother Ruby (Elain Graham), a onetime band singer who is herself the subject of a drop-in by her long-ago lover Elmore (Harvy Blanks). Occupying the house next door is Stool Pigeon (Brian D. Coats), an apparent local eccentric who prefers to call himself a Truthsayer, in the same way that his hoarding of old newspapers becomes to his mind a mission to preserve history and knowledge. Bookending the action with matched monologues on fast-changing times and the Lord’s fiery vengeance, he’s the dour conscience of a play whose people don’t always heed their better angels — and followers of Wilson’s work will know him as the aged version of Canewell, who along with the younger Ruby appeared as supporting characters in the 1940s-era Seven Guitars (produced by Two River in 2015).

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Two River, Dirden continue their Wilson cycle with ‘King Hedley II’

Published in the Asbury Park Press, November 16 2018

Actor Brian D. Coats returns to the world of August Wilson’s acclaimed cycle of plays, as Two River Theater and director Brandon J. Dirden prepare to open a new production of Wilson’s KING HEDLEY II in Red Bank. (photo courtesy of Two River Theater)

While they’ve never formally announced a grand plan to take on every play in August Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” the folks at Red Bank’s Two River Theater are well on their way, having previously presented major professional productions of the late Pittsburgh-based playwright’s Jitney, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. With the latest offering in the company’s milestone 25th season, Two River has reached the halfway point in the collection of ten dramas — each of them set in a different decade — that encapsulate the African American experience in the twentieth century, primarily through the lives of those who make their home in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

That offering is the 1999 ensemble piece King Hedley II, the penultimate play in the chronological sequence — and a loose sequel of sorts to Seven Guitars, a work set nearly 40 years prior to this one. Two River’s 2015 staging of Guitars marked the directorial debut of Brandon J. Dirden, the in-demand actor of stage (as MLK in Broadway’s All the Way) and small screen (a long running role on The Americans) whose many endeavors in Red Bank have included Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine and last season’s A Raisin in the Sun. Returning to the director’s chair for Hedley (and taking the action “right into the lap of the audience,” to the more intimately scaled environment of Two River’s Marion Huber “black box” space), Dirden reunites with several of the actors from the previous project — among them Brian D. Coats, appearing in his third production for Two River. 

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