"Richard III" can be seen at People’s Light through April 24. (Artwork courtesy of peopleslight.org)

“Richard III” can be seen at People’s Light through April 24. (Artwork courtesy of peopleslight.org)

by Clark Groome

Two plays that capture historic periods, one in the 15th century and one in 1969, opened this past week. Both are receiving interesting productions.

Two Trains Running

August Wilson wrote 10 plays chronicling the 20th century black experience. Set one per decade, they are in total a stunning exploration about what it was like to grow up black in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, a typical big city black neighborhood.

Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” set in 1969, is currently receiving a fine production at the Arden Theatre, where it’ll be through April 10. Set in a restaurant during that period of great change, the neighborhood where Memphis Lee’s eatery is located has deteriorated badly, and his building is being reclaimed by the city as part of an urban renewal project. Memphis’ restaurant is a refuge for an interesting and varied cross-section of Pittsburgh citizens through whom we see the characters’ varying conditions.

As is true of most of August Wilson’s work, “Two Trains Running” tends to be talky and long, sins mostly forgiven because of the honesty of expression and the insights it brings. This play, not as affecting as some of his other work, including the two Pulitzer Prize-winners, “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” includes more humor than his others.

The Arden’s cast — Johnnie Hobbs Jr., Darian Dauchan, Lakisha May, Damian J. Wallace, Kash Goins, E Roger Mitchell and U.R. [sic] — is fine from top to bottom.

Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges’s mounting benefits greatly from a flawless physical production designed by David P. Gordon (set), Alison Roberts (costumes), Xavier Pierce (lighting), Mikaal Sulaiman (sound) and Nicholas Hussong (video projections).

For tickets call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org 

Richard III

People’s Light and Theatre has mounted a very different, mostly successful and generally admirable chamber production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” a play that is as often categorized as a tragedy as it is a history.

Set during the British War of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York, the play focuses on the ill-formed and dictatorial Duke of Gloucester who wants more than anything to be king but has no legitimate way to gain the throne. The result is that he kills everyone in his way, including two young princes in the Tower of London, and is crowned in 1483. His violent reign lasts just two years, after which England, perhaps as an antidote to the previous century and a half of violence, settles in to a relatively peaceful period under the Tudors.

Shakespeare’s play is populated by dozens of people. The production at People’s Light, which is on view in their intimate Steinbright Stage through April 24, reduces the number of actors to nine, all of whom except Pete Pryor as the title character, play several roles.

Directed by Samantha Reading, this “Richard III” is set in a nondescript time period. Jorge Cusineau’s set looks like the barricades from “Les Miserables” and is augmented by his video design that is as modern as can be. Rosemarie McKelvey’s costumes are also period neutral, as is Maria Shaplin’s lighting design.

It appears that this production’s physical environment is meant to make it clear that the despotism and evil that drove Richard III is not unique to the 15th century. There’s lots of blood, lots of mayhem and enough intrigue that I heard many people mumble at intermission that what they were seeing on stage reminded them of what is going on in our current political situation.

The performances — although it was often hard to tell who was who — were fine. Pete Pryor made a fierce and determined Richard. The rest of the company was also very good.

“Richard III” is tough going to be sure, but People’s Light take on the play captures its essence in all of its horror.

For tickets call 610-644-3500 or visit www.peopleslight.org.