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.

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FREIGHT: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green. All Aboard!

 

Actor, playwright, director: J. Alphonse Nicholson, Howard L. Craft, Joseph Megel, on the set of FREIGHT. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Actor, playwright, director: J. Alphonse Nicholson, Howard L. Craft, Joseph Megel, on the set of FREIGHT. Photo: Nick Graetz.

 

StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance premiered Howard L. Craft‘s new play on January 9 in Swain Hall on the UNC campus. Nine days into the new year and I have to tell you that the production is likely at the end of the year to be on the short list of year’s best, such is its momentum. This train carries FREIGHT until January 24. Catch it or kick yourself into next year. You can remember that hyperbolic sentence when the play sends up theatrical reviews in one of its many comic moments: “A Five Star Review!!”

One of the incarnations of Abel Green inhabited by J. Alphonse Nicholson. Photo: Nick Graetz.

One of the incarnations of Abel Green inhabited by J. Alphonse Nicholson. Photo: Nick Graetz.

FREIGHT: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green uses trains to provide transportation for Abel through physical space, but also as a metaphor for travel through time. Playwright Craft, who lives in Durham, has already demonstrated interest in the episodic nature of life, the fluid properties of time, and in heroes and super-heroes, but in this script he commands his ideas and stories with a greatly increased level of sophistication and confidence. Starting with his character’s name–the first man murdered, and by his brother–he makes artistic choices that hit like a blunt instrument or slice like a razor. In FREIGHT, one actor portrays five men named Abel Green who live at different periods over a hundred-year span in the US. Each of these black men tells his dramatic story in a 20-minute segment which glides seamlessly into the next, with echoes from the past sounding in future after future. The script would be fascinating even if it were not loaded with highly quotable lines, and part of what’s fascinating is the way Craft is able to say some very tough things so that even white people can hear them.

“All Negroes are actors by necessity.” So says Abel the Minstrel, who we meet as he hops a freight car circa 1910 to go on to his next gig. We’ll live longer, he says, if we know our lines for whites, but we can do improv with other Negroes. He’s been part of a three-man troupe–another hoofer and a front man who can pass for white–but after a horrific lynching, described in nauseating detail, he finds himself traveling alone. His partner just couldn’t take it any more. But Abel is younger and wants “to have the money not to live like a nigger even I have to play one on stage to get it…I keep dancin’ and smilin’ and they pay me for that.”  Then he quotes Paul Laurence Dunbar: “let the mask hide my eyes.”

This section is the most fully fleshed of the play. It began as Craft’s response to the painting by Rose Piper, Slow Down Freight Train, in the Ackland Art Museum collection. “The Minstrel” was directed by Joseph Megel and acted by J. Alphonse Nicholson, in the Ackland gallery; eventually the minstrel’s tale multiplied into the five incarnations of Abel Green. None of the other sections is lacking–“The Snitch” is particularly strong–but none is quite as thoroughly massaged as “The Minstrel.”

Craft’s writing is finely honed, full of poetry, but J. Alphonse Nicholson breathes life into the still syllables. Nicholson is a natural, which is not to say he is not continually honing his art. Perhaps because he started so young, before his heart had had time to harden and wall itself in, he has an almost uncanny ability to assume the characters he plays. But this performance goes far beyond his previous work. In 99 minutes, he takes on and radiates out the pain of generations and the exquisite philosophic particularity of the individuals who felt it, and every single minute feels true. His memory is prodigious–on opening night I heard one tiny stumble. In addition to being empathically talented, tall, dark and handsome, he can sing, dance and drum. FREIGHT takes on an even greater load of poignancy with this young actor portraying not just the minstrel, but an 80s film actor whose success involves being killed in various ways on-screen by the “white vigilante hero.” I want to say that big, big success is Alphonse Nicholson’s to throw away–but have a few years changed America enough to let him bloom forth? You wouldn’t know it from following the news. Even in the post-performance glow, and now even more, I’m haunted by the idea of this cheerful ambitious young man being torqued or broken by the same cruelties and corruptive associates that account for assorted suicides and other deaths in Craft’s script.

One reason Nicholson has been able to build his skills so rapidly is Joseph Megel, who is as delicate and unflinching in his direction as a neurosurgeon. Megel, the artistic director of StreetSigns and artist-in-residence in performance studies at UNC-CH, directed Nicholson his first time out, in 2009, in Howard L. Craft’s Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders(after nurturing the play at UNC), and later in Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot ; also in The Brothers Sizeand in the Activated Art project at the Ackland Museum. So a lot of trust has been built up, over years, among director, actor and playwright. That trust makes this quality of art possible.

Megel and producer Elisabeth Lewis Corley put together a design team who completed the experiential package and transformed the gloomy studio in Swain Hall. Kathy A. Perkins’ lighting is very fine, and Eamonn Farrell’s video and sound are essential to powerful fiction of time travel. Marissa Erickson created communicative costuming that also allows Nicholson to morph from Abel to Abel with speed and grace. Derrick Ivey designed the wonderful set with its arches, spans and sliding train cars. You can buy your ticket here.

*An earlier version of this review had erroneously described Caleb Calypso as Craft’s first full-length play. In fact, Craft had written several plays before that, and his earliest full-length work is The House of George, which received a production in 2002. Several of Craft’s works were produced at NCCU before anyone on the other side of the Durham Freeway paid any attention. A new one-act by Craft will be included in the forthcoming REDBIRD festival at the Carrboro ArtsCenter in March, 2015. The Star regrets the error.

In the Pullman car, just one of the trains in Derrick Ivey's fine set.

In the Pullman car, just one of the trains in Derrick Ivey’s fine set.

A Change that Changed Durham: THE BEST OF ENEMIES at Manbites Dog

Derrick Ivey and Lakeisha Coffey in THE BEST OF ENEMIES at MDT. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Derrick Ivey and Lakeisha Coffey in THE BEST OF ENEMIES at MDT. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

From my review in CVNC:

2013 has already been an extraordinary year in theatre for the Triangle, but one of the most powerful productions of the year has come near the end. Through December 21, Manbites Dog Theater is presenting The Best of Enemies, by Mark St. Germain, who based his excellent play on Osha Gray Davidson’s book of the same title, which laid out the amazing story of the confrontation and eventual friendship between Ann Atwater, a black civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis, a white Ku Klux Klansman, during Durham’s struggles with school desegregation in the early 1970s. An American story of truth and reconciliation, it is beautifully directed by Joseph Megel, who has previously demonstrated unusual skill at dramatizing the humanity behind the ideas of race and class struggle.

READ FULL REVIEW HERE.

Thaddaeus Edwards and Lakeisha Coffey as Bill Riddick and Ann Atwater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Thaddaeus Edwards as Bill Riddick and Coffey as Ann Atwater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Elisabeth Lewis Corley as Mary Ellis, and Thaddaeus Edwards as Bill Riddick. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Elisabeth Lewis Corley as Mary Ellis, and Thaddaeus Edwards as Bill Riddick. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

See this show if you can. It ranks very high among the many great accomplishments of Durham’s finest, feistiest theatre. Manbites Dog reports that tickets are going very fast. They have added two shows, but don’t wait to order tickets.

http://manbitesdogtheater.org   919-682-3343.

At the moment of transformative change: Coffey, Ivey and Edwards in Manbites Dog's THE BEST OF ENEMIES. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

At the moment of transformative change: Coffey, Ivey and Edwards, directed by Joseph Megel in Manbites Dog’s THE BEST OF ENEMIES. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

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