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

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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.”

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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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Aides-mémoire: MARJORIE PRIME, at Manbites Dog Theater

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Jon (Michael Brocki) with his mother-in-law Marjorie (Marcia Edmunson), who is losing her memory in Jordan Harrison’s MARJORIE PRIME, directed at Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater by Jeff Storer. Through May 13, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Aides-mémoire, how they gain in importance as one ages. Lists proliferate; photo albums; calendar reminders; pill boxes; one’s own name taped to the mirror–and still memory goes its own strange ways, coyly hiding behind gauzy curtains; seeming to vanish, but occasionally surfacing all a-glow from lightless pools in the brain’s lacunae. Dying from the moment we are born, we repress that knowledge until we begin to forget, and the dying becomes the living as we hunt for consolation among memories, our own and those of others.

As epigraph for her new novel, The Dark Flood Rises, Margaret Drabble quotes D.H. Lawrence, from his poem, The Ship of Death, and takes her title from it.

“Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.”

So it is for Marjorie, in the thoughtful 2015 play by Jordan Harrison now at Manbites, directed with his usual empathetic acumen by Jeff Storer, who is also quite willing to prod the monsters under the bed with a sharp stick, just to see what they might do. Marjorie Prime explores the future of forgetting and remembering: artificial intelligence housed in artificial bodies, to keep us company and remind us of who we are.

Marjorie, delicately portrayed by the luminous Marcia Edmundson, is old. Her husband’s dead; she’s losing her memory and bodily control to dementia, but still wit and temper flash. Around her assisted-living living room in Sonya Leigh Drum’s spare but emotive set are placed shelf-boxes containing various aides-mémoire (a scrawl of writing–People I want to remember–taped to a tin box, and so forth). These are reminiscent of Joseph Cornell memory boxes, but they also seem like Stations of the Cross for an ordinary mortal, places to pause on the painful journey. The between-the-worlds quality of Drum’s set is augmented wonderfully by excellent lighting, projections and sound by Andrew Parks and Joseph Amodei.

But Marjorie is not alone. She has Walter Prime, her husband as he appeared in his prime, thanks to computer engineering and some Frankensteinian physical conjuring that is doubtless on the actual horizon. The Primes, as these artificial intelligences are called, can learn and process information, even to the point of drawing inferences and displaying compassion. And they’re there to help, like highly evolved Roombas. Derrick Ivey gives Walter both machine qualities and living warmth in an astounding performance in which he somehow effaces the human while displaying a range of human qualities. There’s a moment when Walter’s given a piece of terrible information and his response is so life-like that it chilled me to the core. Will science soon reproduce at will the heart’s intelligence, so hard-won through millennia of genetic selection and the body’s short experiential life?

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Derrick Ivey as Walter, the artificial intelligence in a simulacrum of Marjorie’s late husband’s body in his prime, in MARJORIE PRIME at Manbites Dog. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Marjorie also has her daughter, Tess, played with exhausting verisimilitude by Lenore Field. Tess bustles around, plumping and straightening, griping about the staff, alternating between anger and gentleness, obsessed with everyone’s memories. As her husband Jon, Michael Brocki lowers all his shields and gives the most wonderful performance I’ve seen by him. Jon’s a loving son-in-law and patient husband who does his best to assuage everyone’s grief. Eventually he too must turn for consolation to his own AI companion. For while losing our own memories is bad enough, living to be unremembered by others is far worse.

The play hints at an even more frightening prospect. Human flesh will die and human souls pass into the unknown–but these fully-trained artificial intelligences in unliving bodies will not; and, as W.B. Yeats wrote, they will not “know that what disturbs our blood/Is but its longing for the tomb.”

O brave new world, that has such people in’t.

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Jon (Michael Brocki) lost in his memories of his late wife Tess (Lenore Field) in MARJORIE PRIME, at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

I’ve rarely been so unsettled by a play. Recommended for all thinking adults. Through May 13 in bustling downtown Durham. Tickets here.

Loverly: MY FAIR LADY at PlayMakers

Rarely would a musical be my first choice of what to see at the theater, but there are exceptions, and My Fair Lady is first among them. PlayMakers Repertory Company has just opened its fresh version of this classic by Allan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, slipping plenty of substance under the frothy surface.

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Mia Pinero as Eliza Doolittle, and Jade Arnold as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in PlayMakers’ new production of MY FAIR LADY, in the Paul Green Theater through April 29, 2017.  Huth Photo.

 

Deriving from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), which itself derives from Ovid’s tale of the sculptor Pygmalion and his creation with which he fell in love, My Fair Lady details the metamorphosis of Eliza, a very poor Cockney flower seller, into a lady who can be mistaken for a princess–a metamorphosis orchestrated by Professor Henry Higgins and undertaken on a bet with fellow language specialist Colonel Pickering. Higgins is so well-to-do that he cannot even comprehend the conditions of Eliza’s life or even that she has feelings–and he has no use for women, except as servants (of whom he has aplenty). Hell, he can’t even comprehend that he has feelings until Eliza changes him.

The musical keeps some of Shaw’s pointed political-social commentary about class stratification, labor and capital, but both the play and the musical fail woefully to come to grips with woman’s powerless position in the patriarchal world when she has neither money nor a room of her own. It’s Jane Austen all over again, a hundred (now 200) years later, but without the empathy: a “lower” class woman can make a living, even if by snatching at pennies; a “lady” without her own money can only marry. (For a more contemporary reworking of the basic story, see the 1990 film Pretty Woman.) No version satisfactorily answers the question of precisely how the creation–the lady–could love her “creator”–this is not an equal relationship, despite the woman’s spunk…but so romantic.

Just go with it. You can gnaw the bones later; for two hours and forty-five minutes, this production spoons up crème anglaise and meringues pavlova for your apolitical pleasure.

Tightly directed by first-time guest Tyne Rafaeli, this My Fair Lady‘s cast includes a quartet of PRC’s finest actors, some high-grade non-company local talent and two knock-out imported actors as Eliza and her father, Alfred P. Doolittle.

Mia Pinero as Eliza is suitably volatile, if occasionally over-petulant, and has an impressive voice, with a wide range–of octaves, of tone, of emotion, of volume. Except when she is foiled by the technical weakness of the headset, which turns certain timbres and pitches to mush, she’s a joy to hear. (I truly do not know why they use these headsets–the actors all can make themselves heard to the back rows without them.) Her rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” along with the ensemble, is particularly fine, and I say that as a person raised on the Julie Andrews version from the original Broadway cast album. Pinero imbues the song with such depth of longing for the simplest comforts that one may want to give away all one’s luxuries to the deserving poor.

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Gary Milner, with the ensemble, tearing it up as Alfred P. Doolittle in PRC’s lively production of MY FAIR LADY. Huth Photo.

 

It’s a set-up, though, for Alfred P. Doolittle’s paean to the non-working life, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and his most excellent monologue on the undeserving poor. If director Rafaeli hadn’t kept strong control on the balance among the scenes, Gary Milner as Doolittle would have run away with the show. He is amazing, superbly physical, comically acute and utterly insouciant, especially in “Get Me to the Church on Time.” And again, part of his strength comes from the ensemble around him–the dozen actors who play all the smaller parts: dustmen, chimney sweeps, barkeep, servants, opera-goers, Ascot race-gazers, ball guests. Not only does the ensemble convincingly create all these individuals, not only can they sing–they can dance. Tracy Bersley has given them some marvelous choreography that goes beyond the standard musical theatre dance tropes, and involves a lot of very close synchronization to be effective. Outstanding among the ensemble are David Adamson, John Allore and Shanelle Nicole Leonard.

Longtime PlayMakers Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Henry Higgins and Ray Dooley as Colonel Pickering are superb. Cornell plays in the wide open space between Leslie Howard’s bloodless priggishness (in the 1938 film of Pygmalion) and Rex Harrison’s bombast (in everything, including the 1964 film of My Fair Lady), and gives us a Higgins with whom it is possible to empathize–because he makes Higgins’ own metamorphosis believable. Cornell has an attractive singing voice, and he’s deliciously wistful and confused in “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” He and Dooley, colleagues these 22 years, work together as only time allows, and it is wonderful to watch. Dooley, who has an incredible range as an actor, is purely a treat as a the crotchety Colonel, a man’s man in a top hat.

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He Did It! He Really Did It! Ray Dooley, right, as Colonel Pickering; Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Henry Higgins, and Mia Pinero as Eliza after the ball, in PRC’s MY FAIR LADY. Huth Photo.

 

The men are buttressed by women, naturally–and luckily for us, they are two of the funniest women working on Triangle stages. Their roles are small, but they get the most out of them, and charmingly, director Rafaeli has given them almost identical laugh moments that involve the stage’s pit/lift. Julie Fishell plays Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mother, with a relish almost masked by her languid motions; Julia Gibson milks the housekeeper’s role of more than you knew was there. Together, the quartet of PRC company members makes one aware all over again of our extreme good fortune in having this resident theatre company in our midst. (This is Fishell’s final role as a PRC member. She’s leaving us soon, bound for California.)

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Jade Arnold in full voice as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in PRC’s production of MY FAIR LADY. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

But wait, what about the feckless Freddy Eynsford-Hill, that foppish charmer and exemplar of undeserving wealth? Freddy, who has the most beautiful and romantic song in the show, “On the Street Where You Live,” is luminously portrayed by Durham actor Jade Arnold. I’ve seen Arnold do a number of surprising and thrilling turns on stage but I had no idea he could sing. He rightfully brought the house to cheers on opening night. It is a great personal pleasure to me to see PlayMakers turning a little more towards the local theatre community, as artistic director Vivienne Benesch concludes her first full season with the company.

All this talent is lusciously supported by the musicians–Mark Hartman and Alex Thompson on two yummy Yamaha pianos lent by Ruggero Piano Company–and by the design team. McKay Coble has created another effective and efficient set which is made richer by Masha Tsimring’s emotive lighting, and Andrea Hood’s costuming is really excellent, clearly setting the time period, enhancing characterizations, and looking swell.

Rafaeli has made the final scene ambiguous–is, or is not, Eliza returning to Henry, who has belatedly seen the light? This has always been a worrisome thing to me–the WHY of her return–but there’s no questioning the ways of love, however it may be torqued by power or lack of capital. Still, it is nice not to have it taken for granted. Altogether, this is a stand-out production: very sweet, but the calories are hardly empty.

Through April 29.

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