While it doesn’t claim anything resembling a formal “stock company” of actors and other creative types, Red Bank’s professional Two River Theater Company has been more than happy to foster some mutually beneficial relationships with a number of recurring players — perhaps none more so than Brandon J. Dirden, the Tony-nominated, Obie-winning stage-screen talent who’s made himself quite comfortable on Bridge Avenue, even as his star ascended on television (The Americans) and Broadway (All the Way, in which he appeared as no less iconic a presence than Martin Luther King Jr.).
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When the folks at Two River Theater Company launch a new slate of mainstage shows next month, they’ll be bringing in the 2017-2018 season with a fresh look at a genuine American classic — A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama of a black Chicago family’s struggle to achieve their dreams.
Before the “raisin” of the curtain, however, the Red Bank institution will be raisin’ the roof this Thursday evening with a community “block party,” a public-welcome affair that boasts live music, dancing, food and a a meet-and-greet opportunity with cast members from the show that opens officially on September 15.
Michael Cumpsty, Brandon Dirden and Ruben Santiago-Hudson (pictured at an August 2016 event promoting the Two River Theater production of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM) are among the returning artists who are scheduled to contribute to the upcoming 2017-18 season at the Bridge Avenue arts center.
It’s a season highlighted by a bevy of returning talents, both on the stage and behind the scenes. A season that boasts an enhanced slate of offerings for young theatergoers; more outreach to the area’s growing Spanish-speaking audience, some never-before-seen works, and several fresh perspectives on familiar stories — including two by a certain Wilde man of English letters, as well as one even Wilder.
When Two River Theater Company raised the curtain on its upcoming 2017-2018 schedule of productions on Sunday night, it did so via a genuine “rite of spring” tradition at the Bridge Avenue artspace, as TRTC’s celebrated artistic director John Dias and a panel of guests heralded the company’s 24th season with a “debt of gratitude” to founders Robert and Joan Rechnitz (“the two most glorious people I know”), a tip of the hat to the faithful supporters (“we know you care about this as much as we do”), and a brief channeling of Sally Field (“you actually like us!”).
Arnetia Walker is interviewed by WBGO radio’s Doug Doyle in a recent event at Two River Theater. The stage and screen actress steps/sings into the title role of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, the season-opening show that goes up in previews this weekend. (Photos by Carmen Balentine)
It’s a more-or-less annual highlight of the new season at Two River Theater: a further exploration into the work of the late August Wilson, the celebrated African American playwright whose “Century Cycle” of dramas — ten somewhat interconnected plays, each one set in a different decade and illuminating another aspect of the black experience in America — has apparently become an unstated but ongoing project at the Bridge Avenue performing arts space.
Just as they did with last September’s production of “Seven Guitars,” the folks at Two River are kicking off the new 2016-2017 slate of shows with a bluesy keynote from the house of Wilson: the playwright’s 1984 Broadway breakthrough “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Going up in previews beginning this Saturday night, September 10, and set inside a recording studio in 1927 Chicago, the music-infused ensemble drama is a bit unusual, in that it’s only one of the Cycle that’s not based in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh. And, as the title suggests, it’s the only one of the ten that boasts a central character drawn from real life.
Returning star Brandon J. Dirden (above) is among the cast members expected to attend — while J.W. Lawson and Dean Shot (below) bring the live blues tunes — as Two River Theater keynotes the season opening-production of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ with a Friday evening “block party.”
While we’re still a few Saturdays away from the start of the new 2016-2017 schedule at Two River Theater, the Red Bank performing arts space is keeping it outside for the moment — with a special event that harnesses the magic-hour mojo of the late-summertime season and sounds an early keynote for a blues-infused season opener.
That inaugural production is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the August Wilson ensemble piece that opens September 16 as the latest in Two River’s ongoing exploration of the late African American playwright’s “century cycle” of dramas. The special event is a Taste of the Blues Block Party that rocks the theater’s open-air patio with a Friday evening fricassee of live music, dancing, locally sourced cuisine, and “a chance to meet and mingle with the cast.”
Actor-singer-composer-musician Rinde Eckert talks about creating the music for the Two River Theater production of “Pericles,” which begins previews this weekend. (Video courtesy of the Two River Theater.)
Even as passionate a cheerleader as Two River Theater Company artistic director John Dias is forced to admit that Pericles, Prince of Tyre is “one of Shakespeare’s plays that has frustrated his fans” — the result of its being “most obviously the result of a quirky collaboration with another playwright (or two).”
A sprawling smorgasbord of mythology and melodrama that boasts sensational plot points (incest! pirates! sexual slavery!) and more scenery than can be chewed through in a single sitting, the late-period romance fairly begs, as Dias declares, for “an interpretive team of theater artists who love it for the splendor of its quirks, while working to bring its disparate selves together.”
By TOM CHESEK
When the 2015-2016 season resumes at the Two River Theater in Red Bank this weekend, it will find the celebrated company once again departing from familiar Broadway-tested properties like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Seven Guitars to the latest in an ongoing slate of world premiere dramas by relatively “new” playwrights.
This time out, the play is called Lives of Reason, and the rookie playwrights are a couple of eighty-something colleagues named Bob Rechnitz and Ken Stunkel.
Director Stephen Brackett (above) returns to Two River Theater for a one-night reading of THE GREAT PRETENDER this Thursday…while Rumson’s own Maggie McDonald Condon presents her one woman comedy “whodunit” DAMES OF OUR LIVES on Thursday and Sunday (below).
Their acclaimed production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars has been entered into the books — and November’s take on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is still three weekends away from its first preview performance — but over at the branded Bridge Avenue homestage of Two River Theater Company, the coming days are abuzz and a-twitter with a special degree of activity.
It all begins at 7:30 pm this Thursday, October 22, when the building’s black-box Marion Huber space hosts a free reading of The Great Pretender, a seriocomic new work “about life, death, and the healing power of puppets” from playwright David West Read. Stephen Brackett, who directed last season’s smash musical Be More Chill at Two River, returns to Red Bank for this first look at a script in which a beloved TV kiddie-show host (whose wife and sidekick puppeteer has passed away) invites tension and uncertainty when he takes on a new assistant to lend life and voice to his puppet pal. There’s no charge for admission, but reservations are required by taking it here or calling (732)345-1400.
The home of pioneering human rights journalist T. Thomas Fortune has been vacant for many years. Below, an undated photo of Fortune, who owned it from 1901 to 1911. (Photo above by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
Two members of the borough Historic Preservation Committee said the state Department of Environmental Protection, though its Green Acres program, has made a purchase offer to the owners of the crumbling T. Thomas Fortune house on Drs. James Parker Boulevard.
A familiar face on the Two River Theater stage, Brandon J. Dirden returns as a first-time director, with a production of August Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS that opens the new Two River season this weekend.
Last time the Drama Desk at redbankgreen looked in on Brandon J. Dirden, the actor was preparing for his starring turn in the Two River Theater world premiere of writer-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine; a project that capped a busy year on the Broadway stage (where he won acclaim as Martin Luther King Jr. in the Tony winning All The Way), the TV screen (a recurring role as Agent Aderholt in the FX series The Americans), and — with wife and frequent co-star Crystal A. Dickinson — the ongoing adventure of new parenthood.
When the native Texan helps Two River Theater Company inaugurate its new season this Saturday, September 12, it will be without Santiago-Hudson, the collaborator who previously directed him in the August Wilson plays Jitney (in Red Bank) and a 2012 production of The Piano Lesson that earned the actor an Obie award. It will, however, be in the spiritual company of the late great African American playwright, whose ten-play “Century Cycle” receives continued exploration by TRTC, with a limited engagement of Seven Guitars that runs through October 4 — and that represents Brandon J. Dirden’s first foray as director.
Even as Two River Theater Company inaugurates a new season with the first previews of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars (about which more to come here at redbankgreen), the longest-established community theatrical troupes on the greater Green continue their winning ways — Phoenix Productions in Red Bank with a revisit to a tragically glamorous Andrew Lloyd Webber heroine, and the Monmouth Players of Middletown with a farcical spin on a Hitchcockian maguffin.
The documentary feature AUGUST WILSON: THE GROUND ON WHICH I STAND receives a free public-welcome screening on August 19 at Two River Theater. The 7:30 pm event is just part of a slate of special happenings keyed to the Two River production of Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS, opening September 12 as the first show in the new season.
Press release from The T. Thomas Fortune Project
A free documentary film screening, a Birthday Bash fundraiser for a celebrated figure in Red Bank history, a lecture on the legacy of a great American playwright. All this, plus a Soulful Cook-Off and a Bid Whist Tournament — and all of it keyed to the opening of Seven Guitars, the first production of the new 2015-2016 season at Two River Theater.
The latest in Two River Theater Company’s series of dramas written by August Wilson, Seven Guitars goes up in previews on September 12; opening on September 18 and running a limited engagement through October 4 under the direction of frequent TRTC lead actor Brandon J. Dirden. As an appetizer for that main course, the theater invites one and all to a free screening of August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, on the evening of Wednesday, August 19. Scheduled for 7:30 pm inside the main Rechnitz auditorium at Two River, the documentary feature (originally produced as part of the PBS series American Masters) offers an inside look at the Tony- and Pulitzer winning dramatist who examined African American life in the 20th century through his home turf of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. While admission is free of charge, seating must be reserved by calling the box office at (732)345-1400.
Returning Broadway veterans Brandon J. Dirden and Jessica Stone — plus rookie playwright Robert Rechnitz, pictured with wife and fellow Two River Theater Company founder Joan — are among the creative forces powering a just-announced 2015-2016 season of shows on Two River stages.
It’s a highly anticipated rite of spring in Red Bank — one that John Dias jokingly referred to as “this totally kooky annual event” — but when the artistic director of Two River Theater Company played host for the 2015-2016 Season Announcement on Monday night, he was entirely serious in first thanking the “loyal, passionate” audience members who “want to be the first to hear what we’re doing each year.”
Kicking off in mid-September, and comprising eight productions on two stages of TRTC’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center, it’s a schedule that boasts fresh takes on familiar classics, and first looks at a couple of world premiere works. There’s some engagingly quirky casting; the return of several fondly regarded members of the extended Two River family — and a debut original work by a forever-young upstart who holds a special resonance with the Red Bank audience.
By TOM CHESEK
In an interview with redbankgreen last year, stage/screen actor and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson told us, “Being involved with the work of August Wilson changes people. People of all colors, all religions, all backgrounds he brings them into an arena and sends them out changed.”
At the time, the specialist in all things Wilson a Tony winner for his performance in 1995’s Seven Guitars) was at Red Bank’s Two River Theater to oversee rehearsals for a new production of August Wilson’s Jitney. That acclaimed and extended run found Santiago-Hudson assembling a top-notch cast highlighted by fellow Tony winner Chuck Cooper who also co-starred in Two River Theater Company’s musical premiere In This House along with Anthony Chisholm, Harvy Blanks, Roslyn Ruff and James A. Williams.
All of these Wilson veterans are back on the Two River boards this month, as TRTC returns to Pittsburgh’s Hill District for a major new production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.
Set amid the social upheaval and forced urban renewal of the late 1960s and playing out in a shabby diner set-designed by Michael Carnahan Two Trains unfolds as eatery owner Memphis (Cooper) ponders the prospect of the city buying him out of his fast-fading business, home to a gallery of vivid local characters, and workplace of the embittered and elusive object of desire named Risa (Ruff).
Into this dreary tableau come a couple of characters portrayed by actors making their Two River debuts. Owiso Odera, who worked with the director in a San Francisco staging of Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, plays Sterling, a young ex-convict with an optimistic set of dreams, if not the dollars to fulfill them, and John Earl Jelks, who was Tony nominated for playing an older version of that same Sterling in Wilson’s Radio Golf, appears as the slick numbers runner named Wolf.
The Drama Desk at redbankgreen got delayed a bit by Two Trains Crossing at station stop Little Silver, but managed to pull into Red Bank for a whistle-stop interview with Owiso Odera. Mind the closing doors…
By TOM CHESEK
The scene is the storefront dispatch office of an unlicensed gypsy cab service in Pittsburghs Hill District a neighborhood unserved by the citys major taxi companies, and an unlikely setting for one of the truly game-changing works of the modern theater.
When he wrote Jitney in the late 1970s, August Wilson was a largely self-educated impresario who came from far outside the theatrical and academic establishments to found his own shoestring stage troupe in the Hill District. What he didnt yet realize was that this short-on-plot, long-on-vivid-characters ensemble drama would develop into the cornerstone of a project that would see its author hailed by many as the greatest American playwright of the last 50 years.
Before his 2005 death from liver cancer, Wilson managed to complete the ambitious work that would serve as his legacy: the Pittsburgh Cycle, a set of ten plays each one set in a different decade that encapsulate the African-American experience in the 20th century in ways that are tragic, comic, mystical, musical, realistic, hardbitten, hopeful and, in the case of Jitney, maybe all of the above.
Beginning with a just-added matinee preview on Sunday, January 29, Two River Theater Company makes its first foray into Wilsons world as Jitney takes the stage for a three-week run. Heading a heavyweight ensemble of nine professional players is Tony winner (for The Life) Chuck Cooper as Becker, boss of the dispatch depot and a man whose relationship with his recently paroled son Booster (J. Bernard Calloway of Broadways Memphis) boils over into violence. Anthony Chisholm, who won an Obie as Fielding in the plays original Off Broadway production, reprises the role of the alcoholic ex-tailor here and the frankly awesome cast is rounded out by Harvy Blanks, Brandon J. Dirden, Roslyn Ruff, Ray Anthony Thomas, James A. Williams and Allie Woods Jr.
Most exciting of all is the identity of the director attached to this project Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a longtime friend and professional associate of August Wilson who won a Tony for his acting in Wilsons Seven Guitars (and who went on to co-star in Gem of the Ocean as well as direct numerous Wilson revivals). The busy stage and screen pro, who turned playwright for his autobiographical Lackawanna Blues (and whos also familiar from three seasons of Castle, a TV series in which his character was rather disconcertingly bumped off), has been busily overseeing rehearsals in Red Bank even as he continues his current Broadway stint in the Alicia Keys-produced Stick Fly.
The Drama Desk at redbankgreen managed to get in a few minutes with Santiago-Hudson as he jitneyd his way between two high profile projects.
By TOM CHESEK
The onstage ensemble included a formidable British-born actor who won an Obie award, for playing no less a role than Hamlet. An actor-director-playwright (and cast member of TV’s Castle) with a Tony to call his own. A young actress and singer who’s co-starred on Broadway in Les Miz and Miss Saigon.
Even with all that collected charisma, however, all eyes were on the soft-spoken guy at the podium John Dias, artistic director of Two River Theater Company, and the man at the center of attention as the borough-based stage troupe announced its 2011-2012 season of shows Monday night.
As presented to an audience of invited guests at TRTC’s branded Bridge Avenue artspace, it’s an expanded slate of eight shows that makes use of the building’s mainstage auditorium as well as its companion “black box” space, the Marion J. Huber Theater. Adding to the buzz, of course, was the fact that the upcoming season represents the first full schedule of offerings selected by Dias, who joined TRTC in August of last year.