Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Seeing Both Sides Of - Fences - Play Reviews

Fences - The Huntington at BU Theatre - Boston, MA - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by August Wilson, Directed by Kenny Leon
Closed Oct. 11th 2009

Fences - Cort Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by August Wilson, Directed by Kenny Leon
Closes Jul. 7th 2010

I saw two productions of Fences in the past theatre season. One in Boston, one on Broadway. One with some TV character actors. One with big movie stars. Same play. Same director. Two very different productions. Yet both terrific and thrilling pieces of theatre.

But if I had to choose a side, and avoid sitting on the fence, I would lean just slightly enough (to avoid getting a wedgy) to the less starry cast at the Huntington production. As fantastic as the Broadway cast is and as terrific as the star(/stunt?)-casting of Denzel and Viola Davis have been, I found the less famous actors in Boston to give a more emotionally nuanced and gripping performance and with Leon's very different take, the entire Boston production was ultimately more heart-wrenching. However, I do recognize that it may have also been because it was the first time I saw August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning play (part of his ten-play cycle of the African-American experience in the 20th century), the the twists and shocks were more surprising the first time around.

In Boston, John Beasley (Everwood) and Crystal Fox (In the Heat of the Night) give a more aged approach to the role of long married couple Troy and Rose.

Beasley's Troy is way past his prime and it gives his regrets, and his current mistakes an even heartier, more regretful longing.

Beasley and Fox's Troy and Rose have a loving comfortable relationship with just enough zest that you can see why they lasted together this long, despite Troy's lingering regrets and mistakes.

Beasley's Troy is slow and steady, thunderous and beastly. His power increases with his years aging along his garbage truck route, and his stronghold over his son Cory (a terrific Warner Miller) is built on a forced respect.

Crystal Fox's Rose is loving and no-nonsense but understanding and it makes Troy's constant mistakes all the more heartbreaking as Rose keeps bearing the brunt. It's such a loving performance and its power is in its subtle approach against Beasley's soft gruffness.

The ensemble cast who include Bill Nunn (Spider-Man 1,2,3, The Job) as a terrific Gabriel, Troy's mentally handicapped brother, Eugene Lee as best friend Bono, Brandon J. Dirden as first son Lyons, and Warner Miller, formed a perfect balance, and with Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's terrifically plain scenic design and Ann Wrightson's lighting anchors the play in a realistic 1950's Pittsburgh. Simple, struggling (but not poor), but proud.

Warner Miller gives a confident performance as Cory and his relationship with his father, the core of Fences is quite devastating in it's simplicity and family drama. It feels honest and like a truthful peak into this families dynamics.

On Broadway, Denzel Washington (no reference necessary) and Viola Davis (Doubt, The United States of Tara) give a younger, more youthful spin on Troy and Rose. Denzel is light on his feet and his tall and lean stature gives his Troy a power from idolizing respect, and it means his mistakes in life are made from poor decisions.

Troy's marriage to Rose is the best decision he's made, but his regrets from a baseball career that never was clouds over his relationship with his son Cory (an also terrific Chris Chalk). Denzel gives an automatic charisma of a player that never got to play, and its built up simmering leads him to his devolving relationship with son Cory and gives the sparks that fly between him and wife Rose.

The command that Denzel Washington and Viola Davis brings to the stage, with a glossier set by Santo Loquasto (Onegin, Ragtime) that has a bit more sheen than the Boston version and some beautiful lighting, lifts this troubled family into a brighter limelight. Troy and Roses' house is depicted slightly nicer, slightly more nostalgic and the entire production feels more like a Greek tragedy, with some bolder moves. This is no longer a typical neighborhood in 1950's Pittsburgh but a family devolving into an epic outcome (including a final moment that finishes off the epic tragedy nicely).

Stephen McKinley Henderson's Bono is a wonderfully lovable buddy. Chris Chalk's Cory is plucky and charming but his strained relationship with his father is built on fear. Russell Hornsby's Lyons comes in all swaggering and cocky that gives his father Troy reason for questioning doubt. While Mykelti Williamson's Gabriel is playful but feels almost forgotten by Denzel's Troy.

There are times when Denzel's charismatic and handsome face pulls you out from believing him as a failure and a plain, but his performance is forceful and gives Troy a stubbornness that suits the powerful man he knows he should have been.

The star power Denzel automatically imbues Troy with makes the devastation he causes to Rose and his family all the more devastating but it also feels like karmic justice, and I felt more heartbroken from Beasley's Troy and Fox's Rose in their softer interpretation.

Either way, it's amazing how two great casts and one great director have pulled two very different aspects from one Pulitzer-winning play. Again, I felt the Boston cast united a bit better to give a cohesiveness to the production but each production had its benefits, and each casts helped define its different approaches.

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