Serious Celebrities

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.


A bona-fide celebrity has a way of bringing an audience to even the grimmest news. The 13 million people watching the CBS Evening News on Tuesday might have changed the channel when confronted with reports of the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan, but most kept watching thanks to the star power of Katie Couric. People waited all summer to see America's first female network-news anchor, a phenomenon perhaps only surpassed by the thousands of people who waited in line to see Meryl Streep perform live theater in Central Park. Like Couric, Streep is one of the few individuals who enjoys almost universal approval by a broad cross section of America. And so just as CBS is betting that people will tune in to watch the spunky Couric, New York's Public Theatre bet that audiences would gladly sit through 3-plus hours of Bertolt Brecht's dark, depressing drama, Mother Courage and Her Children, if it meant they could see the magnificent Meryl Streep live on stage.


And they were right, people waited in line for hours--sometimes overnight--in Central Park for tickets, and at the last performance on Sunday, those same people stayed to the bitter end, giving Streep the type of curtain call cheers that are normally reserved for rock stars. Did Streep deserve it? Sure. Mother Courage is one of theater's most difficult roles. She's on stage for almost the entirety of Brecht's lengthy lesson about war, and the range of emotions that Streep exhibited as her character successively loses her three children in battle was remarkable.


But Meryl Streep's Mother Courage was less a display of artistry and more a show of performance chutzpah. In terms of nuance and true character creation, Streep was much better in last year's UCLA Live presentation of Hope Leaves the Theater or even in this summer's hit film The Devil Wears Prada. But those who crowded into the Delacorte Theater didn't seem to mind this or the fact that the production was uneven, since the tickets--if you could get your hands on them--were free.


There were no free tickets in Pasadena last night, but there was an expectant line of people hoping for cancellations to see the new production of August Wilson's Fences. The number of people waiting for tickets did not approach the thousands like in Central Park, but it was in the double digits--which is a rare sight in the L.A. Theater world. People were waiting on line to see Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett. The duo played Ike and Tina Turner in the film What's Love Got to Do with It 13 years ago, and here they again play husband and wife in Wilson's Pulitzer-Prize winning drama.

Fishburne and Bassett often connect with their characters, but the production is not a home-run. It's polished, professional, but a bit perfunctory. Director Sheldon Epps gives Fences--arguably Wilson's finest play--a televised, Masterpiece Theater feel. The play is staged so tastefully--bordering on reverently--that the rough edges of Wilson's work are sanded down, eliminating much of the colorful, unvarnished humanity that gives Fences its unique stain.


It's always unfair to compare productions, but since the Odyssey Theatre wrapped their revival of Fences just last month, one detail is worth mentioning. That smaller, scrappier Fences was 3 hours and 15 minutes long; while this version is a full half-hour shorter--without substantial cuts. The effect of this hurried pace is that despite big stars, evocative period music and a detailed set, the play somehow feels smaller at the Pasadena Playhouse than it did at the Odyssey. There, Jeffrey Hayden's staging allowed August Wilson's words to breathe. One hopes that Fishburne, Bassett and the rest of the talented cast take their time as the run of Fences continues, since this summer seems to have proved that if you mix seriousness with celebrity, people don't seem to mind the wait.

August Wilson's Fences runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through October 1.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.