A Raisin In The Sun (Big Dreams) — August: Osage County (Big Hardship)– You Can’t Take It With You (Big Fun)
The three lightly staged readings put on by Hangar Theatre, in Ithaca, are all doozies in the world of theater. The performances are doozies both for their impact on the audience and for the cast’s ability to rise to the challenge of taking on such material despite the refined production value.
Here’s a look at two of them.
What first comes to my mind in lightly staged theatre are the desolate stages of Sameul Beckett plays like ‘Not I’ and ‘Waiting for Godot’ but not so for those featured during Hangar Theatre’s “Big Play Festival.”
What exactly is lightly staged theatre? According to the press release…”a form of theatre without sets or full costumes. The emphasis is on the text, acting, and imagination of the audience.”
Their readings are ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ (by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by Godfrey Simmons, Jr.), ‘August: Osage County’ (written by Tracy Letts, directed by Beth F. Milles) and ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ (by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, directed by Bob Moss).
Lighting design is a diffuse lightbox for the duration of all the plays, with mics dangling overhead to pick up the dialogue. Not very exciting for the techs at the ready in the control booth.
During these hot readings, were blocking isn’t so important, the performers use their stools and music stands like workbenches, pounding out the words on the page and giving theatrical expression to the playwright’s dynamic dialogue.
The action takes on the life of a radio play. Despite reading directly from the text the actors are compelled to treat each other like a real family, and look directly into each other’s eyes. Acting is so compelling as the actors transform into brothers, sisters, wives and mothers as they look up from the page and into each other’s eyes. In the following photo by Rachel Philipson Ashley Bufkin, left, as Ruth Younger and Nicholas Haynes, right, as Travis Younger have a scene together during a hot reading of ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’
Performers carrying the script with them on stage with and audience in attendance could be seen as a sign of reverence for the importance of the words therein. At times they move across the stage if it holding answers to some of life’s harder questions. The readings of ‘Raisin in the Sun’ and ‘August: Osage County’ do just that.
They are big intimidating plays if not for the actors then for the waves of energy that comes at the audience during huge swings of life events from misfortune to fortune and back again.
Subscription based theater festival format where one tickets grants viewing of all three productions. Buy the ticket, take the ride–three times.
Allow me to set the stage. There are no raisins and no sun.
What is the meaning of ‘Raisin in the Sun’? What does a raisin in the sun have left to give?
What happens to a dream deferred?‘Harlem’ –Langston Hughes
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
‘Raisin in the Sun’ is full of family matters and struggling in the shadow of segregation. The cast is able to display a full range of family dynamic in the face of this social dysfunction by presenting a minority’s collective American dream circa 1954 and then bringing it to life in the present.
The cast’s comic timing is equally balanced with their dramatic forays.
Drama surrounds all the characters except Travis Younger, a young boy played by Nicholas Haynes. Haynes alights upon the stage just as enamored of his hardbound script as he is of the stuffed animal companion under his arm. Haynes shows an ability to carry on enjoying life uninterrupted despite all the yelling about un-lived-up-to expectations and name calling going on around him.
The action takes place after a culmination of perhaps three years where everything comes to a head with the arrival of a check, a pregnancy, and a daughter’s life choice of career or matrimony. Head of the household, Lena Younger (played by Cynthia Henderson), lives with her daughter Beneatha Younger (played by Carley Robinson), son Walter Lee Hunger (played by Anthony Vaughn Merchant), step-daughter Ruth Younger (played by Ashley Bufkin) and her son Travis.
The love and hate between husband Walter Lee Hunger (played by Anthony Vaughn Merchant) and wife Ruth (played by Ashley Bufkin) is palpable. Ashley Bufkin spits fire both in her humor and disappointment. You can see that Anthony Vaughn Merchant’s nature is to be jovial and he convincingly portrays Walter on the verge of enjoying life and his family but his fading hopes and dreams keeps it subdued. subdues his happiness. keep this happiness subdued.
Many of the faces in the crowd reflected back at the actors were white and of an age to have lived through the culture shift out of segregation, perhaps reliving a shared hope of equality.
Let’s set the scene… August: Osage County… wait a minute that’s the name of the play.
It’s relatively modern times, pre-smartphone. The stage is messed about with a mix of thirteen wooden chairs, three of them overturned. There are tables, one with a lamp and pill bottles, one with hardback books and a liquor bottle. Music stands are lined neatly downstage with the lighting overhead and fading away deeper into the collection of chairs.
The stage isn’t set for a punk jazz ensemble. A hot read of ‘August: Osage County’ is about to begin.
If ‘Raisin in the Sun” is about big dreams then this production is about his big hardship.
Whether intended or not actor Carolyn Cadigan’s chair squeaks as her character Mattie Fae Aiken sits churning the rumor mill with a torrent of comic relief.
The play has hard-to-watch moments in the lives of these characters balanced with lots of comic relief as the cast as a whole gets on a roll, flipping pages in unison like the punk jazz ensemble reading a music score. Talk about waves of good acting as actors rise from their music stands as another wave of actors takes center stage for a scene.
If poetry is about reading between the lines then doing a hot read of a play is about driving the lines home. This play may outlive us all even though the first act ends with a monologue of unintelligible babble… that gives you goosebumps.