I Say Goodbye, You Say Hello: The Last Stage Show at Manbites Dog Theater

Derrick and calendar, Wakey, Wakey

Derrick Ivey as Guy, in Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey, directed by Jeff Storer, in Manbites Dog Theater’s final production. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

If you are looking for “balanced” criticism, look somewhere else. Somebody done made me mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.

Get that reference? Was that OK with you, that I included a reference to something theatrical or cinematic in a piece about a theater piece about the theatre of life? Yeah. Was that self-serving of me? Some reviewers might say so.

I once read somewhere that Death is the ultimate weakness, and we dare not insult it. Apparently that is another hallmark of civility now obliterated. From the White House on down to Indyweek, there are people who think it is OK to dismiss the dying’s final brave acts.

Not OK.

Manbites Dog Theater has lived a brave, bold life in 31 seasons of artmaking on a shoestring. With the kindest of hearts and dauntingly high aesthetic demands, MDT has made the most out the least in play after play, with “inclusiveness” the joists and beams of the house they built for our whole community–not a brag line on the facade. Now Manbites is presenting its final show, and guess what? It’s about Death. It’s about Life. It’s about Theatre.

Wakey, Wakey shoots you in the heart with Time’s Arrow, but it is not “maudlin,” as it was described in Indyweek, whose reviewer was present at the same show I saw. I freely admit to sobbing and sniffling from the opening scene and on throughout the 75 minutes–from grief, from delight–but not from distaste at anything maudlin or saccaharine.

Will Eno’s script, quirky, self-aware, ironic and gentle, along with Jeff Storer’s exceptionally tight direction that creates action in a very talky play, and the unmasked characterizations by Derrick Ivey and Lakeisha Coffey, kept “maudlin” out of the room. Dreary is there; quotidian is there; resignation is there–and acceptance, wry and otherwise. The play is also very funny.

Derrick and dog memory, Wakey, Wakey

Derrick Ivey as Guy, in Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey, directed by Jeff Storer, in Manbites Dog Theater’s final production. Projections by Alex Maness. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

All those states of being are given a place to pulse in Sonya Leigh Drum’s shabby care facility common room set, which is strewn with moving boxes and anchored with a calendar, days Xed-off, and a working clock ticking down the time under Andrew Parks’ purposefully dull and dappled lighting (why oh why are the lights in care facilities so dim?). To remind us that this is Theatre, the mobility ramp is covered in red carpet, and the steps are bedizened with purple paint. Alex Maness’ excellent three-screen video projections and his sound design consistently keep us interpreting the play on both its levels: the story of the particular man, and the story of Everyman/Every Theater. By so carefully calibrating and balancing the micro-details and the meta-philosophizing, the enclosed action and the breaking of the fourth wall, this team has made something both excruciatingly intimate and as consoling and large as the thinking mind.

Our dying protagonist, Guy, gives actor Derrick Ivey one last turn on the stage he has graced so often, and as always, he gives it his all. Protean is the word for this man. Each character he plays completely supplants the ones you saw before, yet somehow he contains them all, and all the wisdom that has accrued to him from their portrayals, he conveys to the next character. If life should be so cruel as to deny us any future performances by Ivey, we can take his Guy with us to our own graves. It’s just how it is, his character shows us: it is hard to get up that ramp; it is easy to go too fast on the downslope; it is all baffling and confused and just bearably sweet and time’s up before you are through.

Derrick and Lakeisha, Wakey, Wakey

Lakeisha Coffey as Lisa and Derrick Ivey as Guy, in Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey, directed by Jeff Storer, in Manbites Dog Theater’s final production. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Lakeisha Coffey as Lisa, the hospice companion, does not have long on stage, but she gives an exquisite performance of disinterested kindness and glowing life. Coffey is capable of tremendous intensity, but here she shows gracious depths and sparkling light. She is gorgeously dressed (costume design by Derrick Ivey) and near the play’s end, she dances delightfully (choreography by Tristan Parks). To dance is to live; to live is to dance through time to the final curtain. To live in the Theatre, though, is to create a kind of immortality, for times and for people, for plays and ideas and beliefs and characters who will dance for us again anytime we care to pull open the curtains in our minds and let them twirl in the spangled light of memory.

Wakey, Wakey continues through June 10. See manbitesdogtheater.org for dates, times and ticket purchases. Manbites Dog artistic and managing directors Jeff Storer and Ed Hunt will take a break before returning to greet us again. They will lead the non-profit organization into a new life of supporting other local theaters through the fund generated by the sale of the the Manbites Dog Theater building.

 

 

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LIFE SUCKS. Aaron Posner’s touchingly revised Chekhov at Manbites Dog Theater

5 - Vanya and others

Thaddaeus Edwards as Uncle Vanya, Rhetta Greene as Babs, and Jock Brocki as Dr. Aster, with Faye Goodwin as Sonia and Lakeisha Coffey as Pickles, in Manbites Dog’s new production of Aaron Posner’s LIFE SUCKS., through Nov. 11, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Although the first show of its Other Voices series took place last month, Manbites Dog Theater’s own final season has just begun, appropriately, with a contemporary re-make of Anton Chekhov’s great play, Uncle Vanya–Aaron Posner’s Life Sucks. (the period is part of the title). Does it or doesn’t it? Maybe only sometimes.

For instance, it totally sucks that this is the next-to-last production Jeff Storer will direct at the theater he and his partner Ed Hunt co-founded, and damnitall, it sucks to mourn this ending of theater in Durham as we have known if for 30 years before it even occurs. But it is a fine thing to go down laughing–which one does frequently during this deft and touching exploration of the longings and frustrations of a group of people who know each other well, if not as well as they thought they did.

As you may remember, the action in Uncle Vanya is precipitated by the arrival in the country of the professor, the titular owner of an estate he’s never worked, with his young second wife, and the intention of selling up to finance his city life. Such a sale would render the professor’s daughter and her uncle homeless. Posner retains this basic plot driver, and Storer renders it even more potent than usual due to the parallel with his theatrical home, which its board has decided will soon be sold, albeit for a better purpose—and this intention will not be reversed in the fourth act.

So we are sad; we are in a time of retrospection and elegy—but Posner’s having none of that. He’s mashed up Uncle Vanya with Billy Wilder’s hilarious 1959 film Some Like It Hot and if that doesn’t make you laugh, check your pulse. Storer’s staging is highly reminiscent of Wilder’s, with everyone chasing the object of his or her desire around in circles.

4 - Vanya and Ella

Ella (Jessica Flemming) listening to Vanya (Thaddaeus Allen Edwards) as he tries to explain himself–his real self–in hopes of winning her away from the Professor. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

The Marilyn Monroe role is played here by Jessica Flemming, as Ella, and it requires no effort to understand why she’s being pursued by all and sundry: She’s a dish. But she’s sticking with her man who wears glasses, even though he now provokes more pity and irritation than love in her. Flemming gives her character’s forthright rejection of various others’ impassioned propositions a winsome quality that keeps reminding the viewer that she’s much more than a pretty face.

Ella’s interactions with her husband may be lackluster, but the Professor, beautifully played by Michael Foley, still generates sparkle with the world-wise Babs. This is Rhetta Greene’s first Manbites appearance (in the midst of death we are in life) and I expect she will have quite a fan club by the end of the run. After a career on the New York stage, and in TV and film, and a nice long rest, she has begun to appear locally. If Jeff Storer ever allowed anyone to steal his shows, she would have done it. Her portrayal of Babs is fantastic–wry, unhurried, amused, warm–and she generates heat and light even in the cooly self-centered Professor.

Michael Foley–long a mainstay of the company, now in his final role for Manbites Dog–gives one of his finest performances. His speech on age and infirmity was note-perfect on preview night, and had me sobbing into my sleeve. He plays the Professor very low key, so the content of his speeches ambushes you, and ultimately he makes the Professor a more sympathetic character than you generally find in Uncle Vanya.

7 - Dr Aster and Vanya

The doctor (Jock Brocki) trying to get Vanya (Thaddaeus Allen Edwards) to buck up. Scenic design by Sonya Leigh Drum. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

The same could be said for this production’s Vanya–Thaddaeus Allen Edwards. Vanya’s still exasperating, but somehow more lovable. Sonya Leigh Drum’s wonderful set seems designed especially for Vanya’s moment of crisis, which takes place in a truncated row boat without oars. As Vanya contemplates suicide, all the characters he has played at Manbites seem to glide across the imaginary water, across the viewers’ minds’ eyes, as if it were our own lives possibly coming to an end. Vanya is of course rescued by his friend, Dr. Aster, played here by Jock Brocki with perhaps just a little much emphasis on the doctor’s stultifying ennui.

Certainly Sonia, who’s crazy in love with him, can’t pierce the doctor’s fog. Faye Goodwin handles Sonia beautifully, and is especially adept at the self-aware switches between the play’s interior and its turning outward to inform or harangue the audience directly. The scenes between her Sonia and the doctor give the production some of its broadest humor, and her blunt self-evaluations give it a painful poignancy. In Posner’s script, Chekhov’s character Waffles has been replaced by a female character, Pickles, and Goodwin makes Sonia’s introduction of Pickles very sweet.

1 - Pickles and Sonia

Sonia (Faye Goodwin), right, introducing Pickles (Lakeisha Coffey) to the audience of Life Sucks. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

In Pickles we see that Lakeisha Coffey has found her light as a stage actor. Partly this is due to the actual light provided by Chuck Catotti’s excellent design, but mainly is it because Coffey has matured (before our very eyes on the Manbites stage) into an actor who can go far beyond her known world, and take us with her. She is captivating here, and in command of a character very different from any we’ve seen her play. Although this is a small role, she leaves a deep memory imprint with it. The scene with the puppets (designed by Angela Spivey), with which Pickles tries to seduce the universally popular Ella, is unforgettable, and will go right up there with Coffey’s characterization of Ann Atwater (Best of Enemies) in her roll call of achievments.

The production’s design team also includes two other long-time Manbites contributors: Derrick Ivey, who did the costuming; and Shelby Hahn, who has provided a rather surprising, if unobtrusive, aural analogue to the action. All the design components mesh particularly well in this show, supporting the script, the acting and the wise and gentle direction. Contrary to what the title might lead you to think, this play and its production here make you feel better about almost everything. Rhetta Greene’s Babs has a lovely speech about saying her gratitudes every day, and Thaddaeus Edwards’ Vanya declares, with angst and joy, that all he wants is to love and be loved (cue Marilyn Monroe singing “I Just Want to Loved By You”). Taken together, these two speeches strike me as reflecting director Storer’s own values: this show seems like a statement of grace in an ungraceful world.

Given the size of the crowd at preview, and on opening night, advance ticket purchase is advisable.

2 - Babs and Professor

Rhetta Greene’s captivating Babs bringing out the sweetness in the pompous Professor (Michael Foley) in Aaron Posner’s LIFE SUCKS. The Manbites Dog Theater production, directed by Jeff Storer, runs through Nov. 11, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Summer Sisters return as BAD MOTHERS & NEGLECTFUL WIVES, at Manbites Dog

20n2

In Bad Mothers & Neglectful Wives, devised and presented by Summer Sisters, the struggle within the struggle: “Don’t dilute the message,” say the white women, pulling their black sister down. From left, back: Yamila Monge, Rachel Klem, Aleii Hobin. From left, front: Laurie Siegel, Amelia Sciandra, Mina Ezikpe, Emily Hill, Carissa White. Photo: Sylvia Freeman.

 

Time after time, through history, activist women have been labeled “bad mothers and neglectful wives” in vain attempts to shut them up. As often happens with labels and symbols meant to be shaming, this one has been co-opted by the the revolutionistas of Summer Sisters devised theatre group. Their Bad Mothers & Neglectful Wives, inspired by January’s Women’s March in Washington, DC, and informed by centuries of women-led movements, plays at Manbites Dog Theater tonight and Saturday, and repeats Sept. 14-16. Directed by Rachel Klem, Emily Hill and Carissa White, this Other Voices series show opens Manbites Dog’s final season of plays.

Summer Sisters is a large and fluid group of theatrical women from the Triangle area, who gather each summer in some configuration to process something important and make a witchy brew–a play–out of their distillations. This year’s work boils out of the hurt, rage, frustration, fury, pain, anger, distrust, and general pissed-offedness of millions of women after the elections of November, 2016 and the long string of assaults and murders of women and their children by police. Did I mention mad as hell and not going to take it anymore?

“I can’t keep quiet/for anyone/not any more.

They may see that monster/they may run away/but I have to do it.

A one-woman riot/I won’t keep quiet/no no/no.”

This manifesto, sung in 9-part harmony, a capella, opens the show. The beauty of the voices of the nine women kneeling, candles cradled between their palms, makes a mockery of the mocking epithet that forms the title, and while there are many sharply drawn scenes of historical and present day feminist struggle, those words sum up the message. Still and always, in different contexts, silence equals death. Or, as in the famous Audre Lorde line quoted in the play, “Your silence will not protect you.”

20d1

Emily Hill and Rachel Klem, as 1913 suffragettes, respond to an attack from the hostile crowd at the grand march toward the White House. Laurie Siegel and Amelia Sciandra stand before a projection from a Take Back the Night march. Photo: Sylvia Freeman.

 

Polemical and sometimes pedagogical, Bad Mothers & Neglectful Wives also includes some real soul-searching and some blisteringly funny episodes. When they reprise the old Firing Line TV talk show segment in which William F. Buckley put Phyllis Schlafly and Shirley Chisholm together to talk about the (then still in contention) Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, with Amelia Sciandra portraying Buckley, you may, if you are old enough, laugh out loud–and then cry for the good old days when there was such a thing as an intellectual conservative like Buckley. Funnier still, and mordant, is another song, set to the tune of the Marseillaise: “Rise up you bitches of the motherland…”

Although it could be more smoothly crafted and refined, Bad Mothers is full of raw power and resolve, and makes a fine opening to the final season at Manbites, which came into being as a place for speaking up and acting up and demanding change, respect and equality. Again and again, the characters speak of working for a time in which their daughters will not have to carry on the struggle. (For extra added poignancy, Rachel Klem’s own daughter, Miranda Alguire, stage mananges this show.) I regret the necessity of the message remaining the message, but now hear this:

“We’ve gone too far to stop now. We will get there in the end.”

“We are repeating ourselves again and again–until we are HEARD.”

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