Monday, January 29, 2007

Gem of the Ocean

Tonight my theatre buddy and I saw August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Arena Stage. We’ve been season ticket holders since the 2003-03 season. Our tickets are for preview night, which on some nights is like a polished dress rehearsal. The director typically sits a few rows behind us, takes notes and works on last-minute de-bugging – all of which makes the evening more interesting. Ticket prices are cheaper on preview night too.

Gem of the Ocean is a history lesson about the post-Reconstruction northward migration of African-Americans to communities such as the Hill District in Pittsburgh. It chronicles the experiences of one household’s members as they adapt to a life of freedom, i.e., citizenship, but under crippling economic exploitation. The protagonist, named Citizen, a destitute new arrival from Alabama, finds refuge in the home of 285-year-old Aunt Ester and employment at the local tin mill. In a subplot, one character tries to return to Alabama to rescue his sister, who cannot make the risky trip north on her own because of economic pressure and organized efforts to prevent African-Americans from leaving Alabama. After a bucket of nails is stolen from the mill, the local law enforcer (it’s unclear whether he works for the company, the state or is self-appointed), Ceasar, a self-hating African-American who inflicts terror on the household under the guise of upholding the law, chases down an accused mill employee. The accused drowns himself in the Monongahela River, at gunpoint, “to die in truth” rather than be falsely accused. The real culprit, overcome with guilt, reveals himself and seeks redemption from Aunt Ester.

The play until then is capably acted and easy to follow if you pay attention. (To the high school students sitting across the way from us who slept through the entire First Act: you missed out.) What follows probably is supposed to be “experimental,” and it makes great use of Arena Stage’s sophisticated lighting system. Aunt Ester announces that she and her cohorts will take the culprit to the “City of Bones” at nightfall so that he may redeem himself. The cast performs what must be a religious ceremony, at the City of Bones, a graveyard. According to the program notes, Citizen is cast into the hold of a slave ship, the “Gem of the Ocean,” and experiences the slave’s voyage to the new world. The ritual seems to incorporate African elements, but I’m not sure what exactly goes on. The program notes don’t explain it. That would have been helpful.

This is the second August Wilson production I have seen at Arena, and both were long. Wilson is not a word economizer. Sometimes the dialogue sounds artificial, stilted. Then again, the play takes place in 1904. Plan to spend at least three hours at the theatre.

Gem of the Ocean runs until March 18.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Theatre Pick - The Countess

Definitely grab a sweater and see The Countess performed by the Washington Stage Guild at Arena Stage at 14th & T Streets, NW. The play, by Gregory Murphy, is about the events leading up to the 1853 breakup of influential Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray, and the role of John Everett Millais, one of the founders of the pre-Raphaelite movement, which advocated a return to artistic purity. Ruskin probably is best known for defending a libel suit against James Whistler, which is chronicled in the 1992 book A Pot of Paint. Ironically, Ruskin championed the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and invited Millais to spend the summer with him and his wife in the Scottish highlands. In this day and age, the events in the play would provide ample tabloid fodder. Actress Sunshine Capelletti, who plays wife Effie, looks every bit the part of the pale, exotic auburn-haired beauty idealized in pre-Raphaelite painting and steals the show.

The focus is on the acting. The WSC doesn’t have the budget of the more established regional theatre companies. The actors make do with costumes that don’t look entirely “1850s.” There’s only one set. Yet, they pull it off splendidly. It's a shame that the theatre was only 1/3 full this Friday evening. Seating is open, so arrive early. We had the front-row. If you go to the theatre only once between now and February 4, this is the play to see.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Blade on the Capital Crescent Trail

Yesterday I went roller blading up the Capital Crescent Trail for the first time in weeks. Good thing, because it’s snowing pretty heavily today. I take the approximately eight-mile stretch that runs mostly uphill through the woods and along the Potomac River from Georgetown to Bethesda. The trail one the best things about living in DC. This time of year is especially a treat, because the trees are bare, which allows you to see through the woods, and the trail is nearly empty, even on Saturday. The down side is that it's cold outside. So, you have to overcome your inner couch potato and just do it! You'll be glad you did. Any fellow bladers and cyclists who can’t stand the clueless fair-weather and weekend joggers and walkers who waddle two or three side-by-side or stop in the middle of the trail to chat? Yeah, me too. On the other hand, most of the serious cyclists, the ones with the racing bikes and gear, are fast but courteous.