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.

 

 

Our Super-Heroes, Now Working Magic at Manbites Dog Theater

Marcia Edmundson, Lakeisha Coffey, Thaddaeus Edwards, and Mary Guthrie as The Fathom Town Enforcers of SPIRITS TO ENFORCE, at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Marcia Edmundson, Lakeisha Coffey, Thaddaeus Edwards, and Mary Guthrie as The Fathom Town Enforcers, fundraising (or not) from their submarine lair, in SPIRITS TO ENFORCE,  now playing at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

The play’s the thing in Mickle Maher’s smart, kind, complex investigation of The Tempest and theatre-making, which has just opened at Manbites Dog Theater, where it is marvelously directed by Jeff Storer.  Spirits To Enforce has levels beyond levels, but our super-heroes of the stage surmount all obstacles and overcome the dastardly evil-doers with the power their arts. It’s fine and funny and I suggest you see it while you may (through May 10). My proper review will run in next week’s Indy, but in the meantime, here are a few photos to consider. I’ll just add that this show offers the unusual opportunity to witness a second female interpretation this season of Prospero (following Julie Fishell’s intriguing version at PlayMakers). Marcia Edmundson doesn’t get to give all the lines, as she’s busy being a super-hero and a fundraiser, but she speaks enough of them to make one long to see her fully in the role. Spirits to Enforce is tantalizing that way, with all the characters.

 

Jon Haas as The Tune/Ferdinand and Jessica Flemming as Memory Lass/Miranda in the current Manbites Dog production of SPIRITS TO ENFORCE. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Jon Haas as The Tune/Ferdinand and Jessica Flemming as Memory Lass/Miranda in the current Manbites Dog production of SPIRITS TO ENFORCE. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Mary Michelle Guthrie as The Silhouette has a beautiful scene at play's end in Mickle Maher's SPIRITS TO ENFORCE, directed by Jeff Storer. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Mary Michelle Guthrie as The Silhouette has a beautiful scene at play’s end in Mickle Maher’s enchanting SPIRITS TO ENFORCE, directed by Jeff Storer. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

J Evarts, The Bad Map, aka Trinculo, exercises her talents in comic confusion in SPIRITS TO ENFORCE. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

J Evarts, The Bad Map, aka Trinculo, exercises her considerable talent at comic confusion in Manbites’ SPIRITS TO ENFORCE. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation: Manning explores time and the woman at Manbites Dog

This review was first published by The Independent Weekly, online at http://www.indyweek.com, on June 21, 2012. You can access it here, or read on.

All art is to some degree autobiographical. Any creation tells us something about its creator. But some art is more explicit, depicting or revealing the artist as she sees herself, or in the case of Killian Manning’s new work, exploring the milieu that shaped her.

Manning was born in 1956; she is 56 this year. Her age makes looking back and taking stock almost inevitable, and the numerology makes the undertaking feels cosmic and lucky. In her 1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation, she explains and—yes—celebrates herself by animating a cast of famous 50s characters, and her mother. In fact, the dance-theater work can also be taken as an extended love letter to her mother. At her daughter’s insistence, Cathy Manning joined the cast for their bows in Manbites Dog Theater on June 20, shifting her feet in the same signature movement that Killian gave character Cathy on stage. 1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation, which runs through June 24, is the final show in MDT’s Other Voices series for 2012.

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg portrayed by Derrick Ivey. Photo by Eric Waters.

And there are voices in this dance. In fact, the dance feels secondary to the theatrical exposition (it is not a drama). After a little introduction, Manning parades her characters onto the stage one by one, and each does a little movement riff by which we shall know them. Manning has chosen these people to represent an imagined zeitgeist of her natal year (and beyond), but it is as interesting to think about who’s not there as who is. The only dance artist included is ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Not, for instance, modern dancer/choreographer Martha Graham, who was certainly making news in 1956. Grace Kelly gets a role, for making the transition from actress to princess, but Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar that year for her work, goes unmentioned. The great Beat poet Allen Ginsberg gives what you could call the keynote speech (Derrick Ivey, reciting from Howl, in the show’s most gripping moments), but there’s no equivalent musical giant like Charles Mingus, who released the amazing Pithecanthropus Erectus album that year. Instead, there’s the young Elvis and his new release, “Hound Dog.” The point is not that Manning’s choices are wrong in any way, but that this is her version of her 1956. She has shaped it to fit the woman she has become.

Jonathan Leinbach as Dwight D. Eisenhower. Photo by Eric Waters.

Manning mixes straight biography with a soft-edged magical realism, some of it quite charming, as when President Eisenhower dances and chats with Cathy Manning, or when J.S. Bach appears to her for a long conversation, in which he explains that Killian really is musical, it just all comes out in the dances. There are a number of pleasant and enjoyable dance sequences in this work, but none of them are special, not even Margot Fonteyn’s (and really, she should have been wearing pointe shoes) or the well-conceived duet between Bach (Jonathan Leinbach) and Glenn Gould (Matthew Young). Most of the cast are not advanced dancers (a fact all too obvious during ADF season), and even if they were, they would still be contending with the concrete floor—it is no wonder if there is a slow tentativeness to their movement. Some of this may have been purposeful, to enhance the dreamy magical quality, but it made for a lack of brio.

As interesting as her idea is, it is not quite adequate to carry the production. I admire Manning for keeping on keeping on making new work. But this show points up how difficult that must be, what with a full-time job, few dedicated funds, no foot-friendly theater space, etc.

There is just not enough time or money to take it all the way. No aspect of the show is fully thought-out. For instance, two media screens hover in the background, showing pictures from 1956. For them to have been really effective, Manning would have needed many more images, a flowing river of images, not a short repeating cycle. The script would have benefitted from a little ruthless cutting—I never could figure out what Diane Arbus was doing in there, and her actor, the unflappable Marcia Edmundson, seemed equally at a loss. Marilyn Monroe didn’t seem too sure about what she was doing, either, and that’s out of character for actor J Evarts. The sound was not exploited for emotion, but stayed quite even in volume and texture throughout. I longed for it to thunder out while Bach and Gould danced their duel, and I really longed for Manning herself to project some volume during her speeches.

For all its unevenness and lack of kinetic glory, 1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation is still an enjoyable evening. It is good to look back, and see how far away we are not from the times that formed us.

mhdekm

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