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RED BANK: TRTC ON TRACK WITH ‘TWO TRAINS’

The cast and set of AUGUST WILSON’S TWO TRAINS RUNNING, now onstage at Two River Theater. Below, actor Chuck Cooper. (Photos by Michal Daniel)

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…

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TRTC: ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH

A slew of classic characters from the pens of Shakespeare, Coward and Wilson and more will tread the boards of the Red Bank stage this season.  (Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

“I feel like I’m having a dream,” the playwright and performance artist Lisa Kron said as she faced a capacity crowd at Two River Theater Monday night.

“In high school, we, the theater people, were like the outcasts,” she said. “This is the pep rally we never had.”

The occasion for the spirited assembly was the annual new-season announcement  by Two River Theater Company — one of the most highly anticipated such events in New Jersey stage circles, and one presided over by John Dias, now in his second season as TRTC’s artistic director.

As introduced by the nationally renowned producer and some celebrated associates, the 2012-2013 schedule builds upon the successful template established in the current 2011-2012 season — a season that climaxes with the production of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s My Wonderful Day, going up in previews on May 15.

Utilizing both the mainstage Rechnitz auditorium and the “black box” Marion Huber space at TRTC’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center, the new slate of eight shows mixes classics of the English language with new American voices; intimate solos with exquisite ensembles, and new faces with a whole lot of returning favorites — with words from the likes of Noel Coward, August Wilson and a guy by the name of Shakespeare.

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AT TRTC, AN ACTOR TACKLES TWO PLAYS

Tony winning actor Chuck Cooper is in the house for IN THIS HOUSE, the musical that kicks off its world premiere engagement next week at Two River Theater. (Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK 

When last we looked in on Two River Theater Company, the folks over at Red Bank’s regional professional stage were keeping the motor (and the meter) running on an acclaimed production of August Wilson’s Jitney, a modern American classic set in the heart of a scarred but scrappy urban neighborhood.

When the lights come up this Sunday in the Two River Theater’s intimate “black box” performance space, they’ll beam down upon a now-vacant home in a quiet bit of country; a setting in which two sets of strangers – a troubled young couple who’ve lost their way, and an older pair who’ve returned to this place to find something they’ve been missing – are brought together by chance on a frosty New Year’s Eve, In This House.

At first glance, the two shows would appear to have little in common – but a closer look reveals the presence in both casts of Chuck Cooper, the Tony winning actor and singer (1996 Best Featured Actor in the musical The Life) who topped the cast of Jitney as Becker, the dour and disillusioned boss of the play’s gypsy cab depot.

In the “chamber musical” that’s being staged for the first time anywhere – one of two world premieres in TRTC artistic director John Dias‘s 2011-2012 season (the other was last October’s Seven Homeless Mammoths…) – Cooper co-stars with Brenda Pressley (Broadway’s original cast of Dreamgirls) as the older couple Henry and Luisa. Jeff Kready (Broadway’s Billy Elliott) and Margo Seibert (TRTC’s Orestes) appear as younger couple Johnny and Annie under the direction of May Adrales.

And, as if the production didn’t already have enough to distinguish it, it may just be the only musical you’ll see this season that boasts a score by a former NFL defensive tackle.

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AN EXTENDED RIDE FOR TRTC’s ‘JITNEY’

Tony winner Chuck Cooper (right) appears with J. Bernard Calloway in the Two River Theater Company production of JITNEY — and sticks around to star in IN THIS HOUSE next month. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

In August Wilson’s ensemble drama Jitney, the cantankerous cabbie Turnbo admonishes his call-in “trips” with a warning that they’d better be ready when he gets there, ’cause he ain’t waiting.

That said, if you’re worried that you might not make it to a performance of the critically acclaimed play in Red Bank, the folks at Two River Theater Company want to assure you that they’ll keep the motor running for you.

The show now onstage under the direction of Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson — an offering described by Sledger reviewer (and dean of NJ drama critics) Peter Filichia as “magnificent” in his recent review and as “vibrant” by Anita Gates in the New York Times — has just announced an additional four performances between Thursday, February 23 and Saturday, February 25. That’s good news for anyone looking to catch up with a production that some have branded a worthy candidate for a New York engagement in the near future — although it could be potentially exhausting news for one busy cast member.

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A ‘JITNEY’ TO THE BIG TIME FOR TRTC

Ruben Santiago-Hudson announces JITNEY at the Two River Theater last spring, as Greg Brown and Rona Figueroa (of TRTC’s production of JACQUES BREL) look on. (Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

The scene is the storefront dispatch office of an unlicensed gypsy cab service in Pittsburgh’s Hill District — a neighborhood unserved by the city’s 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 didn’t 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 Wilson’s 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 Broadway’s Memphis) boils over into violence. Anthony Chisholm, who won an Obie as Fielding in the play’s 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 Wilson’s 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 who’s 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 jitney’d his way between two high profile projects.

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