Common Wealth at Common Ground: MANY MOONS

This review was originally published in IndyWeek on Nov. 13, 2013, and on indyweek.com.

Common Wealth on the rise with Many Moons

by 

J Evarts as Meg in MANY MOONS. Photo: Alex Maness.

J Evarts as Meg in MANY MOONS. Photo: Alex Maness.

Not content to be one of the Triangle’s more formidable actors in addition to his IBM career job, Gregor McElvogue founded a theater cooperative. Common Wealth Endeavors grew from the idea that the true common wealth generated by the former British Empire can be measured in language, the English now in use around the globe by people in very different cultures. McElvogue is a British national, born in Singapore and trained at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. He formed Common Wealth Endeavors to bring plays—stories—from the countries of the British Commonwealth to the stages of North Carolina’s Triangle.

Many Moons, playing at Durham’s Common Ground Theatre (no relation), is Common Wealth’s second full production, and it’s a stunner. The first work by young British playwright Alice Birch, it was originally produced in 2011; this production is its U.S. premiere. McElvogue directs the beautifully crafted script with great delicacy and a finely calibrated sense of timing. We are coaxed into such sympathy with the four characters that, even when their grievous shortcomings are revealed, we are inclined to accept that such shortcomings are part of the spectrum of human behavior. We cannot merely revile the characters as one-dimensional monsters—we know them as complex people, full of longing for love.

Some very tough stuff comes out in this unbroken 110-minute play, and anyone who has lost a child to pedophilia or death will want to be prepared, just as a rape survivor must be mentally fortified for portrayals of rape. Birch does not condone what her characters do; she gives their actions context that allows us to feel pity as well as righteous rage. And if we can take it, that makes us better humans.

The action is described in turn by the very pregnant 30-something Meg (J Evarts); the 24-year-old, always smiling, semi-ingénue Juniper (Mary Guthrie); the 30-ish Ollie (G. Scott Heath), brilliant but not socially adept; and the remorseful 60-something Robert (David Sweeney). It takes place on a single hot day, July 18, in Stoke Newington, a village in the vast London metropolis.

All of them are present on Cory Livengood’s simple, effective set; each is put in motion by changes in Hillary Rosen’s active lighting. They shift places as they tell their converging stories, and the language is such that we see their homes and yards and streets and cafes overlaid on the set’s plain geometries. The four are neighbors; they’ve seen one another and know of one another, though they’re acquainted only in the most minimal way. But July 18 is the day of the local fête, or neighborhood fair, and on that day their paths cross with devastating effect. The playwright is not ambiguous, but she leaves it to us to infer the results of the stories’ culminating actions.

The level of self-control achieved by the playwright and director is matched by the actors, all of whom are fully in character and leave indelible impressions on the viewer. Evarts’ portrayal of Meg is the best work I’ve seen from her. Sweeney excelled at showing his character’s simultaneous strength and weakness. Guthrie kept Juniper’s frothy belief in the good in everyone right up to the top of the glass—until the very moment of its complete deflation. And Heath, as the sympathetic young Ollie whose crime you must despise, breaks your heart while twisting your gut.

This article appeared in print with the headline “The bard, the gods and a modern tragedy.”

The production continues Nov. 14-16.

COCK: a recent play on the perennial theme of the wandering rooster

The program for COCK, British author Mike Bartlett’s 2009 play that ends its run at Manbites Dog Theater Oct. 19, includes a verse from a song by the late great Willie Dixon that gets right to the heart of the matter: “Now if you see my lil red rooster, somebody please drive him home…ain’t been no peace in the barnyard since my lil red rooster been gone.” The lil red rooster in COCK is a pusillanimous young man named John, believably acted by Phil Watson, who wanders away from his longtime boyfriend, M, and wanders back again, ruffling up his cockade and testing his spurs on M, who submits–again and again. Gregor McElvogue as M gives a performance that repeatedly surprises, through an emotional range several octaves wider than his roles generally allow. Seeing McElvogue tender and needy and begging is quite something.

John (Phil Watson) attempts to reconcile with his boyfriend (Gregor McElvogue), in Manbites Dog Theater's production of COCK, by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Jeff Storer. Through Oct. 19 at MDT in Durham. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

John (Phil Watson) attempts to reconcile with his boyfriend (Gregor McElvogue), in Manbites Dog Theater’s production of COCK, by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Jeff Storer. Through Oct. 19 at MDT in Durham. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

A fragment of 15th c. rooster-decorated Florentine majolica found in the cloister of San Agostino, Pietrasanta, Toscano, Italia, on display in that building which now houses the town's public library, civic museum and Museo dei Bozzetti.

A fragment of 15th c. cock-decorated Florentine majolica found in the cloister of San Agostino, Pietrasanta, Italia.

The twist here is that John takes up with a woman, W, played with considerable verve by Emma D. Miller. She’s closer to his age; she’s shorter than he; she’s sweet and gorgeous and uncomplicated and kind. And she thinks she’s done got her a fine rooster for her own yard. All she needs to do is go back and close the gate real tight over at M’s place, and her lil red rooster will come on home with her.

But she has a lot to learn about the nature of the beast.

And about what may happen when two roosters get into a cockfight, especially when one calls in his old daddy to help (John Honeycutt, a pleasure to watch, as usual).

Director Jeff Storer sets the fast-moving talk-action in the round, on an adversarial red circle. There is no furniture, nary a prop, no sound or music–just a bell marking the end of each round of the struggle and the beginning of the next. It’s an effective set-up, keeping you off-balance through the emotional surges. Its extreme stylization keeps you focused on the ideas and problems central to the play, which is good, as the people are not all that likable.

Glass rooster, anonymous, 18th/19th c., in the Museo del Vetro, Murano.

Glass cock, anonymous, 18th/19th c., in the Museo del Vetro, Murano, Italia.

You end up feeling considerable sympathy for all of them, however. They each have already struggled with their own situations and identities, and now, when they thought the hard stuff was figured out, here’s another baffling mess of love and longing. And power games.

Sigh.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this play is the glimpse it provides of what may be the next battleground in the struggle to understand (and control) evolving human sexuality. John, the lil red rooster, is forced by girlfriend, boyfriend and father to make an either/or choice. He must choose W or choose M, there is no other way. But he wants to make a both-of-the-above choice. He finally does choose one, but it diminishes him cruelly. Winner takes all, but all is merely a trophy, not love.

Can you imagine how the feathers will fly when the roosters tell the legislatures that justice requires acceptance of bi-sexual polyamory? No justice, no peace in the barnyard, whether or not the lil red rooster stays home.

"Hahn/Cock" by German artist Katharina Fritsch currently lords it over the public in London, on Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth.

“Hahn/Cock” by German artist Katharina Fritsch currently lords it over the public in London, on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. Its blue coloration is meant to convey peace.

Ivey on Ice Skates, and Other Pleasures in THE HOMOSEXUALS at Manbites

UPDATE: DUE TO POPULAR DEMAND, THE RUN OF THIS SHOW HAS BEEN EXTENDED THROUGH MAY 25. PLAYWRIGHT PHILIP DAWKINS WILL BE PRESENT FOR A POST-SHOW CONVERSATION WITH DIRECTOR JEFF STORER ON FRIDAY, MAY 25.

The play that’s running through May 18, closing out Manbites Dog Theater‘s jubilant 25th season, may be the very best I’ve seen in all their years. A script without a false note, The Homosexuals provides opportunity for extraordinary ensemble acting by several of the Triangle’s most consistently fine actors, under the direction of Jeff Storer, MDT’s co-founder and professor in Duke’s Theater Studies program. Philip Dawkins’ bright 2011 play has a moving story, with likable characters who engage in delicious dialogue during believable situations as they all search for love and happiness. And, it is all about being “gay, gay, GAY!”

Evan (Ryan Brock) and British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) meet to discuss real estate and other important things. Photo: Alan Dehmer

Evan (Ryan Brock) and British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) meet to discuss real estate and other important things. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

The first three contenders for best-ever at Manbites that sprang to mind were The Vanishing Point, from 2007; God’s Ear, from 2010; and The Brothers Size, from 2012. Jeff Storer directed two of these (Joseph Megel the third) but Derrick Ivey–who is fabulous, darling, as theatre director Peter in The Homosexuals–had something to do with the excellence of each of the earlier three, through lead roles and/or set design. He’s crucial here, though inseparable from the rest of the ensemble.

The multi-talented Ivey also designed costumes and the versatile set for The Homosexuals, in which the action moves backwards in time. Simple pieces are rearranged as needed for the scenes–the same objects can become beds or sofas or benches–and behind them in a dimly lit arc against the back wall wait the props and actors of the future scenes, scenes have already occurred and that form part of the collective memory for the friends we’re watching on stage at the moment. Ranged behind, out of reach of fear and struggle and joy, the characters off stage observe their past unfold with attentive tenderness. Our observation of their observation tinges the fresh immediacy of the situations with a poignant hue: This is a lovely stage device to augment to lovely, transparent acting.

The first scene opens with Evan (Ryan Brock, pictured left, above) waiting for Peter (Derrick Ivey) at a skating rink. Watching the upright Ivey, who usually does not flail around on stage, make his entrance on ice skates, flamboyant and teetering, is alone worth the ticket price. But everything after that is even better.

The year is 2010, a decade after the young Evan arrived in the big city. He left in the hinterlands a family who couldn’t love him when he came out as gay. He arrived, like so many before him, scared, confused, hurt, poor, and ready for the big adventure. Ryan Brock could have been built for this role. He’s ridiculously good-looking (and still young enough to look very young) with eyes that could melt an iceberg, and he doesn’t waste any energy on pointless moment, saving it for real action.  Almost in a daze upon his arrival, Evan goes to a candy store (!) and meets Michael (beautifully played by Jeffrey Moore), a really nice guy who invites him to a party, where he meets the close circle of friends who become his friends immediately. Except for Tam (Amber Wood, tough, wise-assed and affectionate), who marries British Mark so he can get a green card (Thaddaeus Edwards, impeccable whether his trousers are on or off), it’s a circle of men, gay men. Sometimes and for a while they may be lovers, but they are always friends–to such a degree that they constitute a family.

But we get all that gradually, through the six scenes, each centered on Evan’s interactions with a different friend, and each taking us back two years, until we arrive at the fateful party in 2000, when Evan meets everyone, and we get a glimpse of what drove him away from his former home. In addition to those mentioned above, the group includes Mark (Gregor McElvogue, charming, eloquent, irascible and a little daunting) and Collin (Chris Burner, very funny and endearing). We learn something of everyone’s struggles and adventures, especially in love and lust, and while we don’t watch them grow into the kind honest humans they become, we do get to see how they got that way. Damned if it isn’t about enough to renew faith in humanity. Plus, there are a lot of fine physiques on view.

At the party: British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) and Collin (Chris Burner) dish with Tam (Amber Wood). Photo: Alan Dehmer.

At the party: British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) and Collin (Chris Burner) dish with Tam (Amber Wood). Photo: Alan Dehmer.

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