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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Big Dog Shows Up On Main Street: Manbites Dog Theater, in the beginning

Seventy Scenes1_11-87

The Dog Arrives. Fall, 1987, in the former shoe store at 343 West Main Street, Durham, NC. From left: Barbara Dickinson, Jeff Storer, Patricia Esperon, and Connie Watkins, rehearsing Manbites Dog Theater’s first show, Seventy Scenes of Halloween. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

It’s a scene barely imaginable to 2017’s denizens of Durham’s downtown: empty buildings; empty sidewalks; sparse traffic. No baby strollers, no joggers, no dog-walkers, no sidewalk tables, no hotels or nationally-praised restaurants. Not one coffee shop. The banks were still here, and a few low-cost niche shops and storefront churches, and plenty of attorneys–and the oddballs: an artist or two; working folks who appreciated tall Budweisers with their greasy eggs at the Plaza, and others, more leisured, who preferred their Wild Irish Rose in the alleys and doorways; sweet, haunted Mr. Oscar Matthews, the shell-shocked Korean vet who made the rounds of downtown daily; and that nutty couple making an apartment over a boarded-up storefront. But there was the Bagel Dog (one of two local sources for the Sunday New York Times) and Amos and Andy’s venerable hot dog joint–and in the fall of 1987, another dog showed up, friendly and wanting to play: Manbites Dog Theater.

How did that happen?

Manbites Dog co-founder Jeff Storer had come to Durham to teach at Duke Drama, as Duke Theatre Studies was then called, but there had been a rift in their working relationship, so Storer and his partner, Ed Hunt, were looking for places and ways to make theatre outside the university. “Ed brought me out in 1984,” Storer says, “and we were defining our relationship.” Hunt says that a crucial moment in the defining period was when the pair saw a preview of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart in the spring of 1985.

The Normal Heart,” says Hunt, “is a milestone play calling out institutions and society for not addressing what needed to be addressed.” He and Storer were hit with the realization that “theatre could be a major active voice in addressing the slow motion disaster of the AIDS epidemic.” They immediately determined to produce The Normal Heart in Durham.

To this end, they decided to create a theater and make a season and make some news.

It would be Seventy Scenes of Halloween, which Hunt calls “a really interesting playing with form,” by Jeffrey M. Jones, and a two-person character exploration, The Woolgatherer by William Mastrosimone, “bringing a new playwright” to the area, and The Normal Heart. Although they did not know at the time whether this new theater would continue beyond one season, they established from the first the kind of theatrical mix that would define Manbites for the years to come: experimental form, new writers, and passionate political activism.

“Those were the plays–then we had to find a place to do them,” says Hunt. Through a connection with the downtown artist Tim O. Walker, Hunt and Storer met developer Brian South, who owned some downtown properties, was trying to generate interest in downtown and was happy to let artists do some of that work. He let them have a former shoe store at 343 West Main for a modest rent, and the 1987-88 Manbites Dog Theater season took place there, opening with Seventy Scenes. “An odd strange play in an odd strange place,” laughs Hunt, 30 years later.

“The first season made enough of a splash that we wanted to keep going,” Hunt says. “We did our market research by doing a season–and found an ecosystem waiting to be born.”

So they planned a second season, and were ready to open its first show in space in the old D.C. May building further west on Main Street–but got an unexpected crash course in complying with City code. On what was to have been opening night, Hunt and Storer instead stood on the sidewalk to tell people they couldn’t enter. Suddenly Manbites Dog was an itinerant theater, schlepping all the gear from spot to spot, performing in the Ark at Duke, the Durham Arts Council, and other places around town, and in their third season, in a space in Brightleaf Square visually interrupted by support columns.

Around this time, Hunt and Storer found themselves both reading Larry Kramer’s 1989 Reports from the Holocaust, regarding the AIDS crisis. They began to wonder if they could just use his essay and not wait for him to write a play from it. Kramer was amenable. It would be short, a monologue delivered by actor David Ring, and they would need a “curtain-raiser.” Since this was during the 1990 Senate race during which Jesse Helms was saying terrible things  about AIDS and art on a daily basis, they decided to devise a piece entirely from Helms quotes, and have them spoken by a woman, actress Patricia Esperon. The two pieces together, along with photography by Alan Dehmer and choreography by Barbara Dickinson, became Indecent Materials, and had a two-week run.

Larry Kramer himself came to see it. “He was very complimentary,” says Hunt, adding that during Kramer’s visit, actress Esperon told Kramer, out of the blue: “you should bring it to the Public Theater.” Kramer then called the legendary Joseph Papp, the activist producer at New York’s Public Theater; Papp sent someone down for a look at the show. Hunt and Storer got home one night soon after to a message from Papp on the answering machine.

“Jeff was like a deer in the headlights,” Hunt recalls. He returned the call, and when Papp’s wife answered, Storer gave his name and said he was returning Joseph Papp’s call. Ms. Papp said “who?” and Storer was so flustered he started explaining who Joseph Papp was. “No! Who are you?” Storer crows with laughter, remembering. Once Papp got on the phone, he invited Manbites to bring Indecent Materials to the Public, slotting the show in at the beginning of his season. “I’d worshipped Papp my whole life,” says Storer. “To get a call from him was incredible.”

“The year we went to the Public,” he continues, ” was when we found out about my brother [his HIV/AIDS diagnosis]. It reinforced the idea that theater had to reflect the community. If we wanted to do something, theater was the way we could do it. It unfolded out of the necessity to define ourselves as artists and deal with what was in front of us.”

“We hadn’t met the mark to get any local or state funding, but what we did have was this letter from Joe Papp that he put in every program about this courageous North Carolina company.

“At the moment when we could have given up, that miraculous thing happened.

“Going forward was the only option.”


To be continued.

 

 

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