Antonio ‘T.J.’ Johnson, Laurence M. Brown and Mark Christopher Lawrence star in ‘Fences’ at Cygnet Theatre.
Arts & Entertainment
An American classic, two satires and ‘Tony & Cleo’
Published Thursday, 14-Feb-2008 in issue 1051
Troy Maxson (T.J. Johnson) could hit .432, but he couldn’t leap over that color barrier in professional baseball. So, after he’d gone as far as he could in the Negro Leagues, he settled down with a wife and a steady job as a garbage collector.
Troy, second wife Rose (Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson), their son Cory (Patrick Kelly) and Troy’s son by a previous marriage, Lyons (Laurence Brown), try to navigate their lives in 1957 Pittsburgh in August Wilson’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences. This brilliant co-production of San Diego Black Ensemble and Cygnet Theatres plays at Cygnet through Feb. 24, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg.
Fences is the fifth of Wilson’s cycle of 10 plays, each dealing with a decade in the lives of blacks in the United States in the 20th century. A classic in the mold of Miller’s Death of a Salesman, it is a portrait of unfulfilled dreams and life lived on the flat edges rather than fully in the center. The limiting factor in both plays is society, and the struggle is between the individual and the collective.
Set on the cusp of the civil rights movement, Fences reflects the additional drama of the country’s beginning steps toward social change. Troy’s sons are evidence of the changing social order. Cory wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and play sports – football, to be specific. But Troy has never gotten over the bitterness of a dream denied, and is unwilling to allow Cory the freedom to pursue his equivalent dream. It isn’t meanness; Troy wants to save Cory the heartbreak he experienced. Never mind that Jackie Robinson has opened the door to professional baseball for black players. Troy knows what Cory does not: Robinson notwithstanding, prejudice is alive and well and Cory would be better off learning a trade.
Troy’s older boy Lyons, who is (in his father’s opinion) fool enough to pursue a music career, shows up on Troy’s doorstep whenever he needs money. Troy’s younger brother Gabriel (Mark Christopher Lawrence), brain damaged by a World War II injury, completes the family tree.
Troy battles his demons of disappointment and regret with good-natured joking, talk, storytelling and payday drinking with friend and colleague Jim Bono (Grandison Phelps III). He also talks to “Mr. Death” and fights him off with a baseball bat.
Troy loves his boys and Bono but lets psychological fences distance them, as he does between himself and Rose with an ill-advised dalliance after 18 years of marriage. Years of responsibility and prejudice have beaten the dreams out of him, and she represents a respite: “She makes me laugh in a way that reaches all the way down to the bottom of my shoes.”
Rose, meanwhile, has tried with love to fence her family in emotionally. Also, she asks Troy to build a fence around the yard. Her devotion is put to a severe test when Troy first admits that he will be a father, and then asks her to help raise the child after the mother dies in childbirth.
Sonnenberg marshals her hugely talented cast to stunning results in this richly rewarding play. Thompson and Johnson, who first played Rose and Troy in a staged reading in 1990, give their characters all the depth and humanity they require. Even their silences speak volumes. Phelps, Brown, Kelly and Lawrence also make solid contributions, as does young Madeline Horbuckle as the child Raynell.
It’s not often you leave the theater knowing you’ve witnessed something extraordinary. This is one of those times.
Fences has been extended through March 2 at Cygnet Theatre. Shows Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. For tickets call (619) 337-1525 or visit
The Physicists
Scientific advancement and the responsibilities it confers on mankind are at issue in UCSD Theatre’s production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists, playing through Feb. 16 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre. Lori Petermann directs.
In a private sanatorium called “Les Cerisiers,” psychiatrist Fraülein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd (Amalia Fite) has three unusual patients under her care – Ernst Heinrich Ernesti, who calls himself Albert Einstein (Walter Belenky), Herbert Georg Beutler, a.k.a. Sir Isaac Newton (Evan Powell), and Johann Wilhelm Möbius (Larry Herron), the physicist, named for the famous mathematician. Möbius has been a resident for 15 years; the others have arrived within the past two years.
When the show opens, police inspector Richard Voss (Johnny Wu) and his entourage of photographer and stretcher bearer arrive to investigate the strangulation of a nurse – the second in a short period of time at Les Cerisiers.
“You must admit that safety precautions in your establishment would seem inadequate,” Voss says to von Zahnd. In fairly short order, a third nurse is strangled as well, and it turns out each physicist did in one nurse.
The reasons become clear little by little in this 1962 satiric piece whose argument was inspired by the scientific horrors that made World War II and the nuclear arms race possible.
“What concerns everyone can only be resolved by everyone,” Dürrenmatt once wrote, and The Physicists is perhaps more relevant today than it was then.
Petermann directs a fine cast (Herron’s Möbius is a standout) on Steven C. Kemp’s exceptionally effective set which also boasts terrific lighting by Hong Sooyeon.
Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson and Antonio ‘T.J.’ Johnson star in ‘Fences’ at Cygnet Theatre.
Only a few performances remain for this seldom-seen piece.
UCSD Theatre’s production of The Physicists plays through Feb. 16 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre. Shows Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. For tickets call (858) 534-4574 or visit
Tony & Cleo
Sex and politics are strange but frequent bedfellows, as legions of political leaders brought down by an ill-considered sexual liaison could attest.
Perhaps the most famous such pairing in history was Marc Antony (Richard Carrillo) and Cleopatra (Lesha Montoya). Local playwright Howard Rubenstein explores the genesis, history and effects of their affair in Tony & Cleo, playing off nights through Feb. 27 at 6th@Penn Theatre. Tyler Richards Hewes directs.
Cleo was Julius Caesar’s mistress when she met Tony. The attraction was immediate and apparently overwhelming: Cleo, the beautiful, Greek-speaking Egyptian queen; Tony, the handsome, impetuous soldier. The sex was great, but as so often happens, politics got in the way. Intrigue in Rome (Caesar’s assassination, the triumvirate, Antony’s jealousy over Caesar’s will, various military incursions, even Egypt’s designs on the Roman provinces) and of course that irresistible woman in Alexandria eventually led to Tony’s downfall.
Tony and Cleo are fascinating enough characters, but their story doesn’t lend itself to the kind of distillation necessary to put it onstage. Even Shakespeare had only limited success with his Antony and Cleopatra. The story, with all its personal, political and military ramifications, is just too big.
Rubenstein tries to shorten it, using Eros (Anthony Hamm) as both character and narrator, but inevitably that forces the play’s dramatic momentum repeatedly to grind to a halt so Eros can bring us up to speed on the history.
And the sex? Let’s face it, there’s only so much humping you can put onstage before either boredom or pornography sets in.
The cast struggles valiantly with the episodic material it’s given, but it’s pretty much a lost cause. Hamm does yeoman duty and manages to make his character come alive in the process. Carrillo is good to look at and can act to boot; Montoya looks good too, though at times the “sound seductive” imperative gets a little monotonous.
In smaller roles, Melissa Coleman Reed, Tyler Herdklotz and Joseph Baker acquit themselves well. Jennie Olson is criminally underused as Charmion.
Tony & Cleo plays through Feb. 27 at 6th@Penn Theatre. Shows Sunday at 7 p.m.; Monday through Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. For tickets call (619) 688-9210 or visit
Anton in Show Business
One way to spoof the downsizing trend in theater is to provide a minimalist set and actors playing multiple roles. Another way is to aim satirical barbs at darned near everybody in or associated with the business – actors, directors, producers, critics, even audiences.
Jane Martin’s Anton in Show Business does both. It plays through March 2 at 6th@Penn Theatre, directed by Dale Morris.
The plot has three actresses – TV star and headliner Holly (DeAnna Driscoll), the “queen of off-off Broadway” Casey (Robin Christ) and the blonde ingenue Lisabette (Aimee Janelle Nelson) – cast for a regional run of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters in San Antonio. Along the way, they have to put up with myriad indignities including three insufferable directors – an impossibly snooty Brit, a black director who considers The Three Sisters another irrelevant play about white people (or is it another play about irrelevant white people?); and a Russian who calls himself Wikewitch.
The show is punctuated by inconvenient comments from Joby (Morgan Trant), a young woman in the audience, asking embarrassing questions and criticizing acting and directing trends.
“We used to get stories,” she says. “Now we get ‘interpretation.’ It’s pernicious.”
Later she is exposed as (what else?) a critic.
Anton in Show Business is really a long in-joke about the theater biz and is thus better appreciated by those in the know. But the barbs fall on all equally, and Martin leaves us all thinking about the following: self-involved actors, autocratic directors, complacent audiences, presumptuous critics, cynical corporation sponsors.
Martin’s familiarity with the business and art of theater may be attributed to the widely held opinion that Jane Martin is really Jon Jory, former director of Louisville’s Actors Theatre.
A scene from the UCSD production of ‘The Physicists,’ playing through Feb. 16
This script lends itself to extreme interpretation (there’s that word again), and Morris does let his acting horses dash off unbridled, which tends to wear a bit. But I’ll be darned if it isn’t fun.
Anton in Show Business is a romp, good for an evening of giggles in the theater.
Anton in Show Business plays through March 2 at 6th@Penn Theatre. Shows Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. for tickets call (619) 688-9210 or visit

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