Gonna be a hot time in D-town tonight: The Bipeds and Curtis Eller’s American Circus

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The Bipeds in rehearsal for Stacy Wolfson’s Never, Enough, Better, Nothing, with the high-kicking Curtis Eller on banjo. Performances will be June 2-4, 2016 at The Shed, Golden Belt.  Photo: Alex Maness.

Durham’s DIY dance scene continues to move expansively into the nooks and small venues of the city. Do yourself a favor, local dance fans, and get over to Golden Belt tonight or tomorrow for a performance by the Bipeds Dance Company in collaboration with Curtis Eller’s American Circus. I attended their final rehearsal last night–the final, and first with the full band–and enjoyed myself thoroughly.

Bipeds artistic director and choreographer Stacy Wolfson had been talking on and off with Curtis Eller–their daughters are in school together–about collaborating. They started in earnest last September, and Wolfson began creating movement sequences to particular songs, sometimes incorporating some of Eller’s trademark stage moves. Wolfson’s dynamic, elastic style melds well with Eller’s jumps and high kicks, but where he climbs on the furniture, the dancers get down on the floor.

Most of the dancing is performed by the quartet of Renay Aumiller, Amanda Floyd Beaty, William Commander and Alyssa Noble, and on the small stage in the small space, even without a crowd, they neared the combustion point, with Amanda Beaty doing some particularly nice work.  The choreography is vivid, muscular and emotively clear as it quickly runs through a range of efforts and feelings in the pauseless, nonstop song and dance act. Sometimes the relation of the dance to the song is direct; at others, the song and dance are emotionally or tonally congruent, but not connected in any illustrative way. Eller is also very active on stage, and to some extent the singers Shea Broussard and Dana Marks join in, but the stand-up bass man (Hugh Crumley) and the drummer (Jack Fleishman) had of necessity to remain upstage.

The set-up in The Shed is charmingly down home. Wolfson is using part of the sprung floor constructed last summer by Renay Aumiller, Leah Wilks and friends, for RAD’s aerial performance. The floor was designed to be storable and portable and available for the dance community, and it makes all the difference in what the dancers can safely do. This work would fail on a concrete floor–the attack is too fierce, the dancers would hurt themselves. The availability of this floor is going to change local dance much for the better. But other than having a professional surface to move on, the room looks more like a living room, and the stage is lined with mismatched lamps that the performers turn on and off during the action. The big windows are haphazardly covered with swathes of cloth. There are about 50 chairs and a couch or two. And a great sound system.

Performances tonight, June 3 and Sat. June 4 at 8 p.m. in The Shed at Golden Belt, 807 E. Main St., Durham. Tickets in advance at brownpapertickets.com or at the door. The band will play on afterward on Sat. Dress to wiggle.

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Never a still moment in Never, Enough, Better, Nothing. The Bipeds and Curtis Eller’s American Circus will perform their collaborative song-and-dance work June 3-4 at The Shed at Goldenbelt.  Rehearsal photo: Alex Maness.

 

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Colossal COLUSSUS

The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern has just opened an amazing piece of work at Manbites Dog Theater (part of Manbites’ Other Voices series), a play that gives full scope to the group’s many talents and general fearlessness. The New Colossus, written by Tamara Kissane, was inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and may be considered a radical modernization (and Americanization) of a play that was itself radically modern when it was first produced 120 years ago. A knowledge of The Seagull enriches one’s viewing of The New Colossus, but is in no way necessary to appreciating this production. The themes are timeless: families; love and its variants; new art straining against and raging at the old, and the everlasting tussle between daring truth and comforting entertainment in theatre and literature.

Kissane has followed Chekhov closely enough that the origins remain clear, but she has changed some names and elided or eliminated some characters to create a balance between men and women, and she has written a couple of very moving scenes between women that make the story more resonant today. And her language is deliciously fresh and contemporary (coarse in places, but appropriately so). In The Seagull, the young would-be theatre artist struggles to create new forms to express his feelings and what he sees as universal truths. Kissane has embedded today’s newer forms into her script, so that video-making and video projections form an essential component of the stage play (rather than being set dressing). Little Green Pig has done a lot of experimentation with the use of video; this seamless incorporation of it with the live acting is the most successful I’ve seen.

Dana Marks directs with a very satisfying combination of boldness and delicacy, pulling powerful performances from a uniformly strong cast, and making quiet pools here and there amidst the ceaseless swirl of movement. Something’s always going on, often multiple things, as in life–and as in life, some important actions take place at a distance. Her style and pacing here recall her work with Harriet Jacobs, but Marks has achieved far greater control here, with both clearer structure and smoother fluidity, so that the stories, rather than their manner of telling, dominate the viewer’s immediate responses.

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Jaybird O’Berski as Trig (L), Alex Jackson as Konrad (C) and J Evarts as Irina, in Little Green Pig’s premiere of THE NEW COLOSSUS, by Tamara Kissane. Photo: Alex Maness.

The “broken” young man Konrad (Konstantine in the original), the aspiring theatre artist, is played by Alex Jackson, who keeps one ricocheting between sympathy and exasperation. He is balanced by his stolid counterpart, the schoolteacher Meddie (Medvedenko), portrayed by Lazarus Simmons, who is beginning to display the range of his talent. Poor Konrad is in thrall to his flashy B-actress mother, Irina; as Irina, actress J Evarts gives a tremendous performance, the largest, boldest work I’ve seen her do. She’s stunning in her casual unkindness and her stylish sexuality and her desperation to appear young and employable. She and Trig O’Ryan (Trigorin), a nastyish, self-loving author of popular potboilers are made for each other. As Trig, Jaybird O’Berski demonstrates once again his extraordinary skills as an actor. Trig’s a piece of work, but O’Berski never caricatures, never lets us despise him as inhuman–after all, he’s just a man.

Alice Rose Turner does a good job with Nina, the young girl from the neighborhood who aspires to an acting career in the big city, and with whom Konrad is in love. On preview night she was a bit tentative initially, but gained presence rapidly. She is the seagull, the free bird who both Konrad and Trig would capture for their own purposes. Turner was particularly fine in her final scene. Her counterbalance is the tough Masha, thrillingly played with dry understatement by Mara Thomas. In The Seagull, at the very beginning, Masha says “I’m in mourning for my life.” In The New Colossus, she wears that statement on her t-shirt. She’s in love with Konrad; Meddie’s in love with her–and like her mother, Pauline, she settles for the man she doesn’t love. We never see Pauline’s husband, but he asserts his position, forever texting Pauline and Masha, requiring they placate and attend to him. Pauline is in love–still–with the aging Sorin, Irina’s brother and Konrad’s uncle, on whose country place most of the action occurs. Mick Foley brings his very considerable knowledge of human behavior to the role, and as always, his nuanced acting, both physical and vocal, elicit great empathy for his character.

The scene between Masha and Nina, late in the play, late at night, in which the childhood friends comfort each other, drinking and holding hands, is quite beautiful. It has its counterpart in a similar, if more combative scene, between Pauline–exquisitely manifested by Susannah Hough–and Irina. These two scenes, in particular, hit the refresh button on The Seagull, although its feminization begins much earlier, with Kissane’s brilliant rewrite of Konstantine’s play within the play, in which she substitutes a great mother figure for Chekhov’s manly heroes.

The design team’s work is crucial to the production’s success. Miyuki Su’s set, with its dozens of upended umbrellas suspended below the lights, its shredded white curtains, its sand and grass, is really wonderful, especially in the way it allows the actors to work in the round, and off the main stage area. She, along with the playwright and stage manager Jenn Evans, designed/made/found the many props, while Jade Bettin did the excellent costuming, and Steve Tell the subtle lighting. The video work is by Nick Karner, with Ishmail Abdelkhalek and Alex Maness providing technical direction, and Jeff Alguire exerting technical control over the set. Nicola Bullock choreographed Irina’s seductive dance; Sir Lionel Mouse put together the emotive soundtrack (playlist on Spotify: “Colossus”).

The New Colossus showcases the brilliance of Durham’s most adventurous theatre artists, and their commitment to the collaborative process that can result in such powerful new work. Kissane of course had been writing on the script for a good while, but the cast and crew, all of whom have at least one other day job, put this awesome thing together in a month. Just think what they could do if they had two months. See this show, and consider whether the future of such theatre in Durham is worth your support, perhaps through Patreon, the new model for new arts outside the institutional box. LGP’s Patreon page will go live on June 6.

The New Colossus continues at Manbites Dog Theatre through June 4. Due to the high-decibel Moogfest event to occur nearby, there will be no show Sat. May 21, but there is an unusual Sunday evening show on the 22nd. Schedule and tickets here.

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Alice Rose Turner as Nina, with Konrad (Alex Jackson), in the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern’s THE NEW COLOSSUS, at Manbites Dog Theater through June 4, 2016.                     Set design by Miyuki Su. Photo: Alex Maness.

 

 

Cry If You Want To: Little Green Pig’s Knock-out CELEBRATION at Shadowbox

Photo: Alex Maness.

Thaddaeus Edwards as Gbatokai, in LGP’s CELEBRATION. Photo: Alex Maness.

When the lights came up in the Shadowbox, and the cast took its bow at the close of Celebration on February 7, the actors were met with enthusiastic applause. But after they filed off stage, no one moved for several minutes. The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern had nailed us to our seats with this excoriating production. Adapted for English-speaking theatre by David Eldridge from the 1998 Festen, an early Danish Dogme film directed by Thomas Vinterberg, Celebration is directed here by Kevin Ewert. With a combination of boldness and reserve he makes us doubt what we already know about the plot—gives us the denial already infecting the family—seducing us with the party set-up, then wallops us with the truth. It’s a tough show, but an extraordinary work of theatre.

There are worse things a father can do to his children than rape them repeatedly, but not many. In this story, the father doubled the damage by inflicting himself on his young twins, a boy and a girl. Now he’s turning 60, and the family has gathered to celebrate. All but one—the damaged girl twin, long since grown, has recently killed herself. The boy twin returns to Denmark, to the hotel his parents own and where the children grew up, with a pair of speeches in his pocket. As the eldest son, it will fall to him to make the first toast to his father.

Overlaid scenes in LGP's CELEBRATION. Photo: Alex Maness.

Overlaid scenes in LGP’s CELEBRATION. Photo: Alex Maness.

Jaybird O’Berski leads the outstanding cast of 15. As Christian, the abused son who has lost his twin, O’Berski’s trademark intensity is put to full use, and he exhibits a masterful control, especially in contrast to his brother Michael’s (Jeffrey Detwiler) invisibly crafted wild crudity. Tamara Kissane, who is often paired with Detwiler to great effect, is a knock-out here as Mette, Michael’s energetic wife, who gives as good as she gets in the marital wars. Mette wears blood-red lipstick, an unsettling note amid the carefully designed black, white and beige world of set and costumes (Kevin Ewert and Caitlin Wells), forebodingly lit by R.S. Buck.

Dana Marks gives another powerful performance as the remaining living sister, Helene. Like Kissane, she is fearless on stage, and continues to surprise with her range. She’s brought her new boyfriend (Thaddaeus Edwards) to the party, and his presence offers an excuse for a truly shocking outburst of racist song. Edwards has little to do, but he registers polite astonishment very well, and his what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-these-people look is priceless.

I had some quarrel with the directorial choice that made the personification of the father, Helge, very low-key. As played by Dan Oliver, Helge is almost completely without affect, and no match for son Christian in intensity. I would have preferred to see a glimpse of the brimstone lake below the placid exterior. Once only do we see his cruelty uncloaked, but his threats are weak. His fortress is his bland denial. It was a valid choice to play the character this way, but not, I think, the most powerful one possible.

Denial works much better for Helge’s wife Else, the mother of his children, because finally hers is splintered. Lenore Field gives a brilliant, riveting performance. In the final scene where she is isolated, though not banished, I could not take my eyes off of her motionless portrait of a woman whose forty years of married life has just turned to ash.

In addition to a powerful script, wonderful stagecraft and great acting by the leads and all the supporting cast, this show has something really special: the presence of a child. 5th grader Marleigh Purgar-McDonald has a natural approach and poise many an older actor might envy. Her interactions with her mother (Kissane) and her grandmother (Field) could not have been better. But it is the physical fact of her, a little girl, innocent and loving, that brings the horror of Helge’s past abuse of his own children into the clearest light. I don’t know how Purgar-McDonald is able to process the content of this play, but that she does suggests there may be a great actor in the making inside her. I intend to watch her grow at every opportunity.

This play is not an entertainment, and its content may be too hurtful for some. But it is one of the best works that The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern has produced, and highly recommended. The show runs Feb. 13-15 and 20-22. For reservations go to https://dime.io/events/celebration, or call 919.452.2304.

Photo: Alex Maness.

Marleigh Purgar-McDonald’s Little Girl keep a wary eye on Jay O’Berski’s Christian, while Dana Marks’ Helene reads the damning letter from the dead. Photo: Alex Maness.

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