Just Passing Through: The Open House, at Manbites Dog Theater

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L TO R: J Evarts, Matthew Hager, Marcia Edmundson, Michael Brocki, and Michael Foley as Father, in THE OPEN HOUSE by Will Eno. Directed by Jeff Storer, at Manbites Dog Theater October 27 – November 12, 2016. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Manbites Dog Theater has staged works by Will Eno in the past, including the messily brilliant Oh, the Humanity (and other exclamations) in 2010, Middletown, and Thom Pain (based on nothing), all directed by Jeff Storer. Now Storer has staged Eno’s 2014 The Open House, directing a cast well known to him and to each other, in a play that puts some of Eno’s ideas about people and mortality into firmer form that his previous works.

In The Open House, an emotionally messed up white middle-class family is trying to have a nice day together. Or, some of them are trying; the other one is a chronic tyrant in a wheelchair. Father is a mean old bastard, casually but self-consciously cruel to his wife, son and daughter, and his brother, who lives with the family. It’s Father and Mother’s anniversary, and the grown children have come home, and nobody has any thing to say, or if they do, they don’t know how to say it, or they can’t say it, because they’ve lived a lifetime with Father’s verbal battering.

They are caught in amber. You can almost see it rising up around them, almost see it sucking at the bottoms of the son’s and daughter’s shoes as they escape to errands. Derrick Ivey’s design and Chuck Catotti’s lighting emphasize the dingy colorless stuckness of the family’s life, and the closed nature of their feedback loop.

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Hand to hand resuscitation in THE OPEN HOUSE. Marcia Edmundson, left, with J Evarts, finally has someone pay attention to her bad wrist. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

But change is coming: the wheels of life will turn; transformations will occur. (It is, after all, a play–Eno is not so relentless in reminding us of that in this script, but he keeps it stagey.) It would spoil matters to tell you about them.

I found The Open House very sad, although it has plenty of laugh lines and ridiculous moments. All these people in the same room, each alone and longing and incapable of taking action, it’s rather Beckettian.

Father, cold and controlling of those around him, literally cannot–a stroke (ah, Malign Fate) has crippled him. Michael Foley gives one of his finest performances ever. With Father nearly immobile in his wheelchair, Foley must do it all with voice, facial expression, timing and small gestures, usually with the newspaper he uses as a shield and a prod. He crackles with animosity, which makes his slide into confusion even more painful to watch.

Michael Brocki as Uncle also does very fine work here, especially later in the 85-minute one-act. Marcia Edmundson, as always, is a joy to watch. Although she uses many of the same behaviors for each role, I can never spy the actor behind the character on stage. The Son doesn’t provide as much scope for Matthew Hager–he’s good here, but it would be nice to see him in a bigger role. J Evarts makes every role a big one, and she’s a dervish in this one.

 

Manbites Dog is not a repertory company, but it might as well be. It’s a theatrical home to some wonderful actors and directors and designers, many of whom have worked together for three decades now to mine the human psyche and put its intricacy and simplicity before us through the words of playwrights they’ve pondered together. If there is ever to be a great pax humanitas, it may rise up from a theatre such as this, where the hard work of the humanities goes on late into the night, year after year.

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Michael Foley, left, and Matthew Hager, in THE OPEN HOUSE, by Will Eno. Directed by Jeff Storer. October 27 – November 12, 2016. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

 

The Wonderful World of Disney? See the dark side in Manbites’ Season Opener

Manbites Dog Theater opened its 30th season (!) last night with a strange, compelling little play with a big long title: A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, by Lucas Hnath. Got that? Hereafter to be referred to as Walt. The play was first produced at Soho Rep in 2013; at Manbites, it is a co-production with StreetSigns, and is directed by Joseph Megel.

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Derrick Ivey as Walt Disney in Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, directed by Joseph Megel. At Manbites Dog Theater through Oct. 1, 2016. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

It is not beside the point that Hnath, whose age does not seem to be anywhere on the internet, but I guessitmate to be 30ish, grew up in Orlando, Florida. There’s no doubt that would make for a different view of Walt Disney than that of a child who grew up conflating Walt Disney and Walter Cronkite, and who looked forward all week to “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights.  I suspect that Hnath’s is an accurate portrayal of the man who Disneyfied America: In Hnath’s play, Walt Disney is not a benign character.

Instead, he’s a casually cruel narcissist, or perhaps more accurately, a megalomaniac. The play’s characters are Walt, his brother Roy, Walt’s daughter (unnamed) and her husband Ron, and they are played here by a tight foursome of some of the Triangle’s strong actors, led by Derrick Ivey. Director Joseph Megel, in his inimitable way, coaxes maximum human feeling out of the cerebral script–and quite a few unexpected laughs.

As its title indicates, Walt‘s device is to cloak itself as a reading of a screenplay: everyone flips through pages in big black notebooks, and the shot directions form part of each speech, many of which are chopped sentence fragments. Although Hnath uses the characters to make larger points about families, personal power, imagination and mad ambition, legalized theft, the inorganic making of sanitized pretend-places, the immortality of ideas and the inescapability of death even for the “most important” people, Megel disallows caricaturization. Never are his characters mere signifiers for the playwright’s abundant ideas.

Megel has many fine qualities as a director–pacing, timimg, tone, choice of material and actors–but it is his insistence on the humanity of all the figures on the boards that is most important to the power of his work. Like Manbites’ artistic director Jeff Storer, Megel has a heart big enough to encompass the realness of all sorts of people–while turning them inside out and revealing their pitiful flaws and awful fears, along with their strengths and glories.

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Elisabeth Lewis Corley, left, as Roy Disney and Derrick Ivey as Walt. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Derrick Ivey continues to surpass himself. He exudes charisma, even as his Walt reveals the nastiness behind the public persona, and he contrives to look just like Disney. Elisabeth Lewis Corley, despite being undeniably female, gives an affecting performance as Roy Disney, Walt’s bitterly loyal make-it-happen man and kicking post. The excellent Lakeisha Coffey is under-utilized here, but sizzles in her key speech, and David Berberian is wonderful as her sweet but dumb husband. Victoria Ralston reinforced their characters with telling costuming. The excellent set by Sonya Leigh Drum is augmented by Joseph Amodei’s video and sound design, and Andrew Parks’ lighting.

Walt is another don’t-miss-this production from Manbites–and a well-timed cautionary tale about a forceful man with outsized ambitions and a bottomless well of self-regard.

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David Berberian, left, as Walt’s son-in-law, and Lakeisha Coffey, right, as Walt’s daughter, with Derrick Ivey as Walt Disney, on Sonya Leigh Drum’s sharp set at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney runs through October 1, 2016, at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham. Tickets here.

Hail Aphrodite:VENUS IN FUR at Common Ground, through V-day

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Love is a many-splendored thing. Mark Filiaci and Meredith Sause in David Ives’ VENUS IN FUR, at Common Ground Theatre. Photo: Alex Maness.

David Ives’ 2011 play, Venus in Fur, concerns a theatre director looking for an actress to portray a character in a play he’s written, based on the 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, for whom masochism is named. This playwright/director, Thomas (Mark Filiaci), has just had a terrible day of unsuccessful auditions for Vanda, the woman who agrees to dominate the play’s male lead (and possibly Thomas’ alter ego), when a woman named Vanda (Meredith Sause) blows in and insists on auditioning.

Got all those layers? Good, because, as the play (and the play within) develops, even more layers appear.

Directed by John Murphy, this American Theatre Practice production at Durham’s Common Ground is a scintillatingly intelligent and suave examination certain power relationships–the dance of desire between dominance and submission, and not just in love and sex. Although (the pleasure of) pain is discussed in the play(s), no actual pain is inflicted onstage or off. There is pleasure only, the pleasure of the smart script and fine, witty acting. This is the best I’ve ever seen Filiaci–the most complete acting–and saucy Meredith Sause is purely a delight, glowing with audacity, sexuality and high-wattage brainpower.

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Who’s zooming who? Sause and Filiaci in VENUS IN FUR. Rehearsal photo: Derrick Ivey.

 

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Playing within the play. Sause and Filiaci in VENUS IN FUR. Rehearsal photo: Derrick Ivey.

If, as I have, you have missed the literate, skilled, chamber theatre of the late, lamented Ghost and Spice group, you will want to catch this performance. Several of the folks involved with this American Theatre Practice production have long ties to G&S and Common Ground, and the general attitude is similar. There’s good, smart design and production, but the emphasis is on the thoughtful interpretation of character, and the overall meanings of the script. This particular production grew from one of the many readings with other actors that John Murphy has hosted at his home for many years, and it is subsidized by a theatre-loving individual, Dr. Michael Feezor.

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Misogyny revenged? Power, gender and “suprasensuality” in VENUS IN FUR. Rehearsal photo: Derrick Ivey.

Murphy is well-known for his many memorable roles in Triangle theaters since 1989; with his seamless direction here he demonstrates that he knows what works onstage from the inside out. The same is true for assistant director Marcia Edmundson, who has lit up so many area productions. They bring their decades of intimate knowledge of theater and theatricality to bear on this very theatrical script, often with delicious, laugh-out-loud results. Of course, Filiaci and Sause are both seasoned practitioners of the art, and toss off all the internal literary and dramatic references with the ease of knowledge, while revolving silkily through their characters’ changes. Both have the ability to stay completely in their story world, although the audience is only a few feet away; and they make the outer shell of the building disappear with their reality on stage. They are greatly aided in this by Derrick Ivey’s set and costuming; Chuck Catotti’s excellent lighting; and Kit Weinert’s moody sound design.

Venus in Fur continues at Common Ground Feb. 5-7, and Feb. 11-14. Tickets here.

Highly recommended.

 

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