BWW Reviews: August Wilson's SEVEN GUITARS Strums at No Rules Theatre Co.

By: Sep. 15, 2014
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The late August Wilson is one of America's greatest playwrights. From the early 1980s up until his death in 2005, Wilson wrote 10 plays, each encompassing African American life in a different decade focusing on the same Pittsburgh neighborhood, with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom being the sole play to occur outside of Pittsburgh. These 10 plays when put together are known as The Pittsburgh Cycle or Century Cycle, and is considered some of the 10 best plays ever written by an American playwright.

Wilson's plays each are influenced by the power of music. In a 1996 interview with Playbill magazine, just before the premier of Seven Guitars, he said:

I chose the blues as my aesthetic, I create worlds out of the ideas and the attitudes and the material in the blues. I think the blues are the best literature that blacks have. It is an expression of our people and our response to the world. I don't write about the blues; I'm not influenced by the blues. I am the blues.

Wilson is indeed the blues, and it shows his masterfully crafted play Seven Guitars, which the ambitious young theatre company, No Rules Theatre Company is currently running at Signature Theatre's Ark in Shirlington. At the center of this production is recently released from the workhouse, Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton. Barton is on a quest to retrieve his electric guitar from the pawn shop and head to Chicago to make a record after the sudden success of an earlier song, "It's All Right". No Rules company member, Ro Boddie, is at the center of the seven member ensemble and does a great job portraying the tragi-com hero as he quests for redemption after his release from prison and his attempts to prove faithful to his girlfriend, Vera. Boddie not only does a fine job tackling Wilson's wordy dialogue, but has a few moments to shine playing blues guitar.

Barton's relationship with Vera, who is embodied by the flawless Jonieve Abbott-Pratt, is touching and tragic. Vera, along with the motherly Louise and the voluptuous Ruby are each in a different phase of their life. Together their relationship not only with Barton but the remainder of the ensemble shows different perspectives of the 1940s female and her role in society.

Boddie and Abott-Pratt are the standouts in the cast and at the center of the story, but Ron Dortch as the neighborhood "butcher", Hedley, is at the top of his game. Wilson likes to write troubled secondary characters (see Gabriel in Fences) and Dortch's portrayal of Hedley is top notch and adds the depth to the character that Wilson intended.

Director Michele Shay, who was Tony-nominated for her role as Louise in the original Broadway production, does a fine job guiding her actors through the small space and emphasizing vocal nuances. She is no doubt taking ethereal guidance from the late Lloyd Richards who masterfully directed a majority of Wilson's debuts. Shay keeps the 3-hour play from feeling long and keeps the audience engaged in the story.

Technically, the show was solid, but not perfect. Music director Darius Smith does a fine job incorporating the blues into the show while sound designer James Bigbee Garver does a great job give the music a phonographic feel to it. While Harlan Penn's scenic design is good, at times it felt a bit too big for the small Ark theater and some of the details of the "lived in" feel to the design seem too cartoonish when seen at such a close distance that the audience is to the action. Props designer James Kramer and lighting designer Latrice Lovett add to the effectiveness of the piece. Out of all of the design elements, Collin Ranney's costumes were the most accurate both in design and execution.

While Seven Guitars is not on par with some of other Wilson's works like Fences or The Piano Lesson, it is still a moving piece that is a fitting work for a company without rules to produce. Artistic Director Joshua Morgan should be commended for taking a risk doing an August Wilson play and bringing in someone of Ms. Shay's caliber to helm a solid production.

No Rules Theatre Company runs Seven Guitars through September 28 at Signature Theatre in Shirlington, VA. For tickets visit the box office or call (571) 527-2159.

Photo credit: Teresa Wood