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.
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.
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.
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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