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.

Howard L. Craft’s New Play at Manbites: More Miraculous than Mundane

Durham playwright Howard L. Craft has leapt to a higher level of prowess with The Miraculous and the Mundane, his new two-act piece now in a workshop production at Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater, in association with StreetSigns. This four-character play deals with a lot of life’s hard stuff, but–although its notes and chords are words and sentences–its affect is much like that of a large complex piece of music. The sounds, the rhythms, the undertones and overtones, the minor chords top-dressed with flowers of laughter, the modulations and sudden reversals of tempi and mood: all are so richly orchestrated that you could just listen to the sounds and get to their purport, if not to the details of this story. It is one hell of a piece of writing, and director Joseph Megel, continuing his multi-play relationship with Craft and his work, knows just what to do with it.

Unlike Craft’s FREIGHT, which manipulates time and space to tell of the sameness of a Black man’s fate in America over many decades, The Miraculous and the Mundane takes place in this here and now. It is set in the Durham of today, and it shows a Black family grappling with a fate unconnected to race: Dementia.

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Trevor Johnson as Percy and Lakeisha Coffey as his daughter Chloe in THE MIRACULOUS AND THE MUNDANE, by Howard L. Craft, in the current workshop production at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Ed Hunt.

 

Percy Nelson, scorchingly played by Trevor Johnson (his most vivid and heartfelt performance to date), along with his best friend Bone, portrayed by the completely charming Irving W. Truitt, Jr. (they “go back like Blacks and Cadillacs”), survived the Viet Nam War, where they fought as Marines–but Percy’s losing the battle with memory. He retreats from one scant cover to another, but finally the only one in denial about the presence of the enemy is Bone. Percy’s daughter Chloe faces the facts first, and in this role Lakeisha Coffey once again excels herself. Ron Lee McGill, last seen at Manbites as the struggling brother in brownsville song (b-side for tray), has developed considerably as an actor, and he gives the frustrated, angry, Junior a frantic kind of stoicism, then cracks him right open in a crucial scene. Joseph’s Megel’s astute direction is in evidence here, forcing us to contend with the uncomfortable reality of Junior, who is kind of a jerk until he’s not. Junior takes up a lot of space and keeps the atmosphere edgy and potentially threatening.

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Trevor Johnson, left, as Percy, and Ron Lee McGill as his son Junior, in Howard L. Craft’s new play THE MIRACULOUS AND THE MUNDANE, at Manbites Dog Theater through April 1, 2017. Photo: Ed Hunt.

 

In addition to chronicling a brave man’s descent into the hell of dementia, and the concommittant downward suction on his family and friend, The Miraculous and the Mundane limns the freedoms and constrictions of a hard-earned middle-class life on Alston Avenue. After the war, Bone started a car repair shop, and Percy a dry cleaners. They have both done well in business. Percy put his two children through college, has a comfortable house, still runs the cleaners. He mourns his wife, who was killed in a car accident a few years previously. Daughter Chloe (Spelman graduate; MBA), having just received another humiliation from her cheating husband, has come home for a while, and it is she who realizes that something is wrong with Daddy. Coffey gives a powerful performance as the secretive wounded wife/daddy’s girl/frightened good daughter/pissed off sister/caretaker of the father who no longer knows her. She literally vibrates with emotion, and often had me in sympathetic tears.

Junior, a unpromoted bicycle cop with the Durham police, refuses to see Percy’s decline, because he’s just about to lose his home due to an adjustable rate mortgage and the self-deluding thinking that led up to taking it out, and he is focused on getting Daddy to lend him the needed money. He is also married to a white woman, whose father wants to bail them out. So Junior, in addition to having all the issues that come with being a strong father’s junior, is in a terrible squeeze. He’s getting no respect anywhere, and getting nagged at everywhere (none of it his fault, of course), he’s got to satisfy the bank, and he absolutely is not going to take the money from a white man, even though the man’s now family. After a devastating scene of father-son sparring, Percy refuses to lend the money and when Junior storms out, Percy tells Chloe, with disgust, sorrow and a kind of perverse pride, “your brother married a crazy white woman when he could have married Black royalty.”

Now this right here is one of the reasons I love to see a Howard L. Craft play. I cannot walk into a room in real life where anyone would say that as long as I was there–that and quite a few other of the choice lines and small revelations that stand out for their verisimilitude, like bottleneck guitar riffs above the rich thrumming of the textual music in The Miraculous and the Mundane. (There is also an excellent soundtrack by Joseph Amodei, who did the smart lighting, too.) Craft did it with Caleb Calypso, he certainly did it with FREIGHT, and he does it here–he takes me to places and understandings that are not available to me outside of art. The wonderful flip side to that is that the same plays show, to other viewers, a world they know but rarely see depicted on stage. I dare to hope that Howard L. Craft will one day be known as a 21st century August Wilson…perhaps there will even be a Durham cycle of plays.

This is theatre at its most miraculous, not stinting on philosophy, but giving us back the mundane, a little polished up so we can see it better–our little lives projected large, with dramatic incidents as overwhelming as we feel them to be in the privacy of our dogged dailiness. Some–a great deal–of The Miraculous and the Mundane is completely particular to Black people (and thankful I am to peer into that reality and even more to listen to it) but the greater part is simply particular to people. It feels honest, it feels real. After the opening night performance, the actors told me, separately, that the familiar realness was partly why they were able to get the workshop production into such an advanced stage of readiness in a mere two and a half weeks. Craft said that he’d written the story using the people and places and speech patterns he knows–“these are my uncles,” he said of Percy and Bone–and from personal knowledge of the terrible progress of dementia through a family. Since the personal is political, this play is political–but it is not propagandistic, theoretical, conceptual, or speculative. The only question is whether you will be able to get tickets for this limited workshop run, or if you will have to wait for the full production, tentatively scheduled at Manbites Dog Theater early in 2018.

Very highly recommended. Through April 1. Tickets here.

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Daughter and Daddy: Lakeisha Coffey and Trevor Johnson as Percy and Chloe in THE MIRACULOUS AND THE MUNDANE, by Howard L. Craft, at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Ed Hunt.

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