An August Occasion

Youngblood, Fielding and Turnbo trade stories rich with August Wilson's urban poetry.
Jim Caldwell

With its sun-bleached red linoleum floor, its faded leather couch and its list of lazy rules posted so long ago that nobody bothers to read them anymore, Becker's run-down taxi stand makes the perfect hangout for the bunch of idiosyncratic men who populate August Wilson's Jitney, now running at the Alley Theatre. The sentimental script was written some 20 years ago as part of Wilson's decade-by-decade exploration of the African-American experience that also includes the astonishing, Pulitzer Prize-winning plays Fences and The Piano Lesson.

Jitney journeys back to 1977, a time of relative peace in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where much of Wilson's work has been set. Lights come up on Becker's Car Service, a gypsy taxi stand employing four men who run their own cars, taking jobs from the pay phone that hangs on a crumbling wall at the back of the shop. Behind the phone, a long, greasy plate-glass window reveals the city. Always a part of the story, the city looms like an American tragedy: Big, hulking cars rust on the streets under the weight of an orange working-class fog that stretches out over distant factories in the wide cityscape horizon of Scott Bradley's enormous set.

Becker (Lawrence James) has been running his "car service" at this address for the last 18 years. And the four men who work there spend their time between trips just hanging out, giving advice, trading stories and picking at each other like hens. Of course, their talk is rich with the sort of urban poetry that only a writer of Wilson's caliber could muster. The men speak with their own stylish rhythms as they ruminate over everything from an ex-girlfriend's bad juju to the crime that landed Becker's son in prison 20 years ago.



Through February 9 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 713-228-8421. $25-$45.

Cirque du Soleil's Dralion
Through February 20 under the blue-and-yellow big top across from the George R. Brown Convention Center. Call 800-678-5440 or go to the Theatre Under the Stars box office, 2600 Southwest Freeway, for tickets. $26-$60.

The power of their stories comes from the fact that they are carefully drawn characters, each one peculiar. Nosey Turnbo (Cedric Young) walks like a self-satisfied pigeon and spends his time gossiping about other people's "business" and putting greasy moves on women half his age. Shealy (Phillip Edward VanLear), who runs numbers out of the taxi stand, wears shiny blue suits and two-toned shoes and spins a smoky tale about the woman who cast her spell over him long ago. Level-headed Doub (Alex Allen Morris) keeps the peace among his cantankerous friends. Fielding (Wayne DeHart), oozing with drunken, scene-stealing grace, has the most interesting story: Before booze got him, he was a fine tailor to such rich and famous jazzmen as Count Basie. Youngblood (Steven J. Scott), the only young man in this coop of old farts, is all fire and youthful desire as he punches his way to manhood.

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Had this group of characters some sort of unifying story to wrap their individual histories around, Jitney would be more than a collection of finely wrought monologues and scenes rendered with sharp performances from a very handsome cast. But as it is, the only real trouble on the horizon is the fact that the "Pittsburgh renewal council" is threatening to "board up" the inner-city block where Becker's place stands. The men don't seem at all worried about losing their jobs; it's their way of life that will be lost as time moves relentlessly forward. There is a sweet melancholy to the script, but no real urgency or passion.

Still, August Wilson, one of the most important American dramatists of the past 20 years, knows how to spin a yarn, and director Jonathan Wilson has brought together a joyful and energetic cast. The stories, the cast, Bradley's impressive set and Michael Lincoln's wonderfully moody lighting come together to create an entire universe of character and place that is richly drawn and tenderly persuasive.

It's been four years since Cirque du Soleil, the exotic Canadian circus famous for its animal-free, gravity-defying acts, first raised its big top in Houston and performed its breathtaking production Quidam. The circus has returned at last with Dralion, a new show that is as gorgeous if not as emotionally moving as their last effort.

The more narrative Quidam was held together by the coming-of-age story of a young girl who appeared throughout the performance observing the circus's awe-inspiring flights of fancy. The more lyrical acts of Dralion are connected not by any central tale but by imagery. Chinese dragons, an Indian dancer and spidery tumblers who crawl across a webbed wall of the tent all come together to celebrate the four elements of life: air, earth, fire and water.

The culture of an entire world is celebrated here. There is the African-inflected character Gaya, danced deliciously by Henriette Gbou, and the tiny Chinese tumbler Gan Tian, who twists herself into impossible pretzels as she balances on one hand while perched atop a slender silver disk. Viktor Kee, who juggles and dances in sheer tights while flames of rippling muscles burn across his sinewy legs, hails from the Ukraine. And the clowns, the strange and delightfully raunchy clowns, who flop and flail and hurl themselves through hysterical acts that riff off the audience and the performers, come from Canada, Brazil and even the United States.

The pulsing, erotic beauty of this entire production is the result of an astonishing synthesis of elements: Julie Lachance's flowing choreography, Stéphane Roy's futuristic set of shining steel, François Barbeau's gorgeous Emmy Award-winning costumes of garnet- and saffron-colored silks, Violaine Corradi's haunting music and Luc Lafortune's mystical lighting. It all comes together under Gilles Ste-Croix's Emmy-winning direction to create a night of sensual pleasures.

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