BWW Reviews: Theatreworks' SEVEN GUITARS Stutters, Yet Sings
Theatreworks is presenting Seven Guitars in conjunction with next month's Death of a Salesman as part of a miniseries entitled "America's Backyards." Both productions are set in 1948 outside ordinary homes and revolve around ordinary lives. The synchronicity invites further comparisons between August Wilson's portrait of black blues musicians and Arthur Miller's masterwork. Both plays share a theme of hope against desperate odds, of reaching for the better life that The American Dream claims everyone is entitled to. Both plays feature a man who pursues that dream in defiance of everything against him, and both end in tragedy.
To be sure, Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Calvin M. Thompson) has more cause for hope than broken-down Willy Loman does: his first blues record is getting a lot of radio play, and the studio wants him to come back to Chicago and make more. Like Loman, however, Floyd faces a deck insurmountably stacked against him: his guitar is in hock, the money he earned during his recent stint in the prison workhouse is not forthcoming and his manager is suspiciously unreliable. But Floyd holds Chicago in his heart as the promise of infinite possibility, and as the lifelines are pulled out of his hands one by one he becomes more determined to reach it at any cost.
Wilson's language evokes the rhythm and soul of blues music, filled with metaphor, philosophy, and raw emotion. Religion, violence, and social injustice are recurring themes, and the shadow of death is never far from the conversation. The Theatreworks production struggles to find the beat in places, as the actors stumble over tongue-twisting dialect and rapid-fire exchanges and the first act drags towards the end. When it comes together, though, it's a symphony: the monologue where Vera (Nambi E. Kelley) describes her loneliness in Floyd's absence is as musical as can get without actually bursting into song.
Thompson infuses Floyd with a great deal of passion and drive, but the highlight of the show is Kelly, whose face is a subtle mask of anguish as her Vera struggles with her love for Floyd and the increasing evidence of his unreliability. Michael Broughton makes a huge impression as "King" Hedley, an aging Caribbean mystic whose rambling speeches walk a fine line between nonsense and wisdom. And Melissa Taylor brings some light to offset the predominating darkness as Ruby, the landlady's naïve niece.
Director Clinton Turner Davis and set designer Jonathan Wentz have arranged the black box of the Dusty Loo into a tight thrust formation around the backyard, emphasizing the closeness and poverty of the setting. The intimacy may be a bit much in places, however-like the scene where Hedley brutally slaughters a rooster and spatters the stage with its blood. Ew.
Theatreworks' SEVEN GUITARS is playing now through September 29th at the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 4:00pm and 2pm Saturday matinees on September 21st and 28th. For tickets, call the box office at 719-255-3232 or visit www.theatreworkscs.org.
Photo Credit: Isaiah Downing
Calvin Thompson, Michael Broughton
Calvin Thompson, Nambi E. Kelly