Floyd is dead, long live the King!
August Wilson's Seven Guitars
Two River Theater | Red Bank, NJ
directed by Brandon J. Dirden
“Floyd Barton is gonna make his record. Floyd Barton is going to Chicago!” Except that he isn’t. Floyd Barton only makes it as far as the cemetery. That’s no spoiler, mind – we find this out in the very first scene. The beauty of Seven Guitars, like all good storytelling, lies not in the ‘what’, but in the ‘how’ and ‘why’.
August Wilson is back at the Two River Theater in what is fast becoming a spiritual home for his work. Seven Guitars is the third of the Pittsburgh Cycle that the theatre has produced since John Dias assumed artistic directorship, and it’s fair to say that the latest instalment doesn’t disappoint. There’s romance in the air already with Brandon J. Dirden making his directorial debut. Dirden is well known for his relationship with Wilson’s work, having already performed in five of the ten plays – it’s only natural he should take to the other side of the rehearsal room with number six.
Set in the dusty backyard of the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Floyd ‘Schoolboy’ Barton (superbly brought to life by Kevin Mambo) is fresh out of the workhouse. As always he’s got his head in the clouds – but this time he’s also got his feet on the ground with a hit record. He’s on a one-way mission to get back to Chicago and record his next, create his legacy and come back in a Cadillac. He just has a few loose ends to sort out first.
It becomes apparent very quickly that this isn’t Floyd’s story, and the fact that we are gathered here today to mourn the loss of him is testament to that. Nobody understands the word ‘community’ like August Wilson and Seven Guitars is no different. There are no heroes and villains here – you pick the protagonist who resonates most with you, and root for them. Everyone has something to say and a point to prove, and where other directors may skirt over this to pick up the pace, Dirden trusts the ability of his cast and the rhythm of the writing to keep the story rolling. This trust is not misplaced as the action here is seamless.
Dirden understands the importance of the rhythm. What could easily be misconstrued as ‘soapbox’ rants are turned into thoughtful musings, with questions genuinely posed. It’s good, honest and heartfelt storytelling. The detail in the production is also realised with absolute clarity. The set itself is impressive and diligently crafted by Michael Carnahan – dust billows from the stage as the actors move about, every tap works, every chicken clucks and I bet the sweet potato pie tastes as good as it looks.
If Floyd’s going to record this hit then he needs his band, both musically and merry men-wise: Canewell (Jason Dirden), Red Carter (Charlie Hudson III) and the woman he left behind, Vera (an exquisite and complex portrayal by Christina Acosta Robinson). Rounding off the backyard are Louise (conveyed with perfect blend of assured comedic timing and concealed warmth by Crystal Dickinson), her niece Ruby (young Brittany Bellizeare hold her own among this skilful cast) and the troubled Hedley (Brian D Coates).
Canewell’s summary of what it is to love and be loved is up there with any Hamlet speech, while Jason Dirden’s mesmerising performance reaches the point of pinnacle through his visceral honesty and subtlety. Wilson’s poetry is delivered here with such profoundness that it’s simply heart-breaking to watch. Vera’s reaction to seeing Floyd on his return is another potential show-stealing performance from Acosta Robinson.
There are a few issues with the production: Mambo’s aggressive rants are at times inaudible and the odd transition could have benefited from a bit more haste. Although these issues don’t detract from what is overall a solid production.
There are also stunningly executed interludes of live music (with original compositions by renowned jazz musician Jason Moran), understated poetic touches and projection that show Dirden isn't just about the script.
If you don’t know Wilson (and you should!) then this is a perfect introduction. If you do, then this is another celebration of his fine, fine, work.
photo | ©T. Charles Erickson