LIFE SUCKS. Aaron Posner’s touchingly revised Chekhov at Manbites Dog Theater

5 - Vanya and others

Thaddaeus Edwards as Uncle Vanya, Rhetta Greene as Babs, and Jock Brocki as Dr. Aster, with Faye Goodwin as Sonia and Lakeisha Coffey as Pickles, in Manbites Dog’s new production of Aaron Posner’s LIFE SUCKS., through Nov. 11, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Although the first show of its Other Voices series took place last month, Manbites Dog Theater’s own final season has just begun, appropriately, with a contemporary re-make of Anton Chekhov’s great play, Uncle Vanya–Aaron Posner’s Life Sucks. (the period is part of the title). Does it or doesn’t it? Maybe only sometimes.

For instance, it totally sucks that this is the next-to-last production Jeff Storer will direct at the theater he and his partner Ed Hunt co-founded, and damnitall, it sucks to mourn this ending of theater in Durham as we have known if for 30 years before it even occurs. But it is a fine thing to go down laughing–which one does frequently during this deft and touching exploration of the longings and frustrations of a group of people who know each other well, if not as well as they thought they did.

As you may remember, the action in Uncle Vanya is precipitated by the arrival in the country of the professor, the titular owner of an estate he’s never worked, with his young second wife, and the intention of selling up to finance his city life. Such a sale would render the professor’s daughter and her uncle homeless. Posner retains this basic plot driver, and Storer renders it even more potent than usual due to the parallel with his theatrical home, which its board has decided will soon be sold, albeit for a better purpose—and this intention will not be reversed in the fourth act.

So we are sad; we are in a time of retrospection and elegy—but Posner’s having none of that. He’s mashed up Uncle Vanya with Billy Wilder’s hilarious 1959 film Some Like It Hot and if that doesn’t make you laugh, check your pulse. Storer’s staging is highly reminiscent of Wilder’s, with everyone chasing the object of his or her desire around in circles.

4 - Vanya and Ella

Ella (Jessica Flemming) listening to Vanya (Thaddaeus Allen Edwards) as he tries to explain himself–his real self–in hopes of winning her away from the Professor. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

The Marilyn Monroe role is played here by Jessica Flemming, as Ella, and it requires no effort to understand why she’s being pursued by all and sundry: She’s a dish. But she’s sticking with her man who wears glasses, even though he now provokes more pity and irritation than love in her. Flemming gives her character’s forthright rejection of various others’ impassioned propositions a winsome quality that keeps reminding the viewer that she’s much more than a pretty face.

Ella’s interactions with her husband may be lackluster, but the Professor, beautifully played by Michael Foley, still generates sparkle with the world-wise Babs. This is Rhetta Greene’s first Manbites appearance (in the midst of death we are in life) and I expect she will have quite a fan club by the end of the run. After a career on the New York stage, and in TV and film, and a nice long rest, she has begun to appear locally. If Jeff Storer ever allowed anyone to steal his shows, she would have done it. Her portrayal of Babs is fantastic–wry, unhurried, amused, warm–and she generates heat and light even in the cooly self-centered Professor.

Michael Foley–long a mainstay of the company, now in his final role for Manbites Dog–gives one of his finest performances. His speech on age and infirmity was note-perfect on preview night, and had me sobbing into my sleeve. He plays the Professor very low key, so the content of his speeches ambushes you, and ultimately he makes the Professor a more sympathetic character than you generally find in Uncle Vanya.

7 - Dr Aster and Vanya

The doctor (Jock Brocki) trying to get Vanya (Thaddaeus Allen Edwards) to buck up. Scenic design by Sonya Leigh Drum. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

The same could be said for this production’s Vanya–Thaddaeus Allen Edwards. Vanya’s still exasperating, but somehow more lovable. Sonya Leigh Drum’s wonderful set seems designed especially for Vanya’s moment of crisis, which takes place in a truncated row boat without oars. As Vanya contemplates suicide, all the characters he has played at Manbites seem to glide across the imaginary water, across the viewers’ minds’ eyes, as if it were our own lives possibly coming to an end. Vanya is of course rescued by his friend, Dr. Aster, played here by Jock Brocki with perhaps just a little much emphasis on the doctor’s stultifying ennui.

Certainly Sonia, who’s crazy in love with him, can’t pierce the doctor’s fog. Faye Goodwin handles Sonia beautifully, and is especially adept at the self-aware switches between the play’s interior and its turning outward to inform or harangue the audience directly. The scenes between her Sonia and the doctor give the production some of its broadest humor, and her blunt self-evaluations give it a painful poignancy. In Posner’s script, Chekhov’s character Waffles has been replaced by a female character, Pickles, and Goodwin makes Sonia’s introduction of Pickles very sweet.

1 - Pickles and Sonia

Sonia (Faye Goodwin), right, introducing Pickles (Lakeisha Coffey) to the audience of Life Sucks. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

In Pickles we see that Lakeisha Coffey has found her light as a stage actor. Partly this is due to the actual light provided by Chuck Catotti’s excellent design, but mainly is it because Coffey has matured (before our very eyes on the Manbites stage) into an actor who can go far beyond her known world, and take us with her. She is captivating here, and in command of a character very different from any we’ve seen her play. Although this is a small role, she leaves a deep memory imprint with it. The scene with the puppets (designed by Angela Spivey), with which Pickles tries to seduce the universally popular Ella, is unforgettable, and will go right up there with Coffey’s characterization of Ann Atwater (Best of Enemies) in her roll call of achievments.

The production’s design team also includes two other long-time Manbites contributors: Derrick Ivey, who did the costuming; and Shelby Hahn, who has provided a rather surprising, if unobtrusive, aural analogue to the action. All the design components mesh particularly well in this show, supporting the script, the acting and the wise and gentle direction. Contrary to what the title might lead you to think, this play and its production here make you feel better about almost everything. Rhetta Greene’s Babs has a lovely speech about saying her gratitudes every day, and Thaddaeus Edwards’ Vanya declares, with angst and joy, that all he wants is to love and be loved (cue Marilyn Monroe singing “I Just Want to Loved By You”). Taken together, these two speeches strike me as reflecting director Storer’s own values: this show seems like a statement of grace in an ungraceful world.

Given the size of the crowd at preview, and on opening night, advance ticket purchase is advisable.

2 - Babs and Professor

Rhetta Greene’s captivating Babs bringing out the sweetness in the pompous Professor (Michael Foley) in Aaron Posner’s LIFE SUCKS. The Manbites Dog Theater production, directed by Jeff Storer, runs through Nov. 11, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

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Big Dog Shows Up On Main Street: Manbites Dog Theater, in the beginning

Seventy Scenes1_11-87

The Dog Arrives. Fall, 1987, in the former shoe store at 343 West Main Street, Durham, NC. From left: Barbara Dickinson, Jeff Storer, Patricia Esperon, and Connie Watkins, rehearsing Manbites Dog Theater’s first show, Seventy Scenes of Halloween. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

It’s a scene barely imaginable to 2017’s denizens of Durham’s downtown: empty buildings; empty sidewalks; sparse traffic. No baby strollers, no joggers, no dog-walkers, no sidewalk tables, no hotels or nationally-praised restaurants. Not one coffee shop. The banks were still here, and a few low-cost niche shops and storefront churches, and plenty of attorneys–and the oddballs: an artist or two; working folks who appreciated tall Budweisers with their greasy eggs at the Plaza, and others, more leisured, who preferred their Wild Irish Rose in the alleys and doorways; sweet, haunted Mr. Oscar Matthews, the shell-shocked Korean vet who made the rounds of downtown daily; and that nutty couple making an apartment over a boarded-up storefront. But there was the Bagel Dog (one of two local sources for the Sunday New York Times) and Amos and Andy’s venerable hot dog joint–and in the fall of 1987, another dog showed up, friendly and wanting to play: Manbites Dog Theater.

How did that happen?

Manbites Dog co-founder Jeff Storer had come to Durham to teach at Duke Drama, as Duke Theatre Studies was then called, but there had been a rift in their working relationship, so Storer and his partner, Ed Hunt, were looking for places and ways to make theatre outside the university. “Ed brought me out in 1984,” Storer says, “and we were defining our relationship.” Hunt says that a crucial moment in the defining period was when the pair saw a preview of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart in the spring of 1985.

The Normal Heart,” says Hunt, “is a milestone play calling out institutions and society for not addressing what needed to be addressed.” He and Storer were hit with the realization that “theatre could be a major active voice in addressing the slow motion disaster of the AIDS epidemic.” They immediately determined to produce The Normal Heart in Durham.

To this end, they decided to create a theater and make a season and make some news.

It would be Seventy Scenes of Halloween, which Hunt calls “a really interesting playing with form,” by Jeffrey M. Jones, and a two-person character exploration, The Woolgatherer by William Mastrosimone, “bringing a new playwright” to the area, and The Normal Heart. Although they did not know at the time whether this new theater would continue beyond one season, they established from the first the kind of theatrical mix that would define Manbites for the years to come: experimental form, new writers, and passionate political activism.

“Those were the plays–then we had to find a place to do them,” says Hunt. Through a connection with the downtown artist Tim O. Walker, Hunt and Storer met developer Brian South, who owned some downtown properties, was trying to generate interest in downtown and was happy to let artists do some of that work. He let them have a former shoe store at 343 West Main for a modest rent, and the 1987-88 Manbites Dog Theater season took place there, opening with Seventy Scenes. “An odd strange play in an odd strange place,” laughs Hunt, 30 years later.

“The first season made enough of a splash that we wanted to keep going,” Hunt says. “We did our market research by doing a season–and found an ecosystem waiting to be born.”

So they planned a second season, and were ready to open its first show in space in the old D.C. May building further west on Main Street–but got an unexpected crash course in complying with City code. On what was to have been opening night, Hunt and Storer instead stood on the sidewalk to tell people they couldn’t enter. Suddenly Manbites Dog was an itinerant theater, schlepping all the gear from spot to spot, performing in the Ark at Duke, the Durham Arts Council, and other places around town, and in their third season, in a space in Brightleaf Square visually interrupted by support columns.

Around this time, Hunt and Storer found themselves both reading Larry Kramer’s 1989 Reports from the Holocaust, regarding the AIDS crisis. They began to wonder if they could just use his essay and not wait for him to write a play from it. Kramer was amenable. It would be short, a monologue delivered by actor David Ring, and they would need a “curtain-raiser.” Since this was during the 1990 Senate race during which Jesse Helms was saying terrible things  about AIDS and art on a daily basis, they decided to devise a piece entirely from Helms quotes, and have them spoken by a woman, actress Patricia Esperon. The two pieces together, along with photography by Alan Dehmer and choreography by Barbara Dickinson, became Indecent Materials, and had a two-week run.

Larry Kramer himself came to see it. “He was very complimentary,” says Hunt, adding that during Kramer’s visit, actress Esperon told Kramer, out of the blue: “you should bring it to the Public Theater.” Kramer then called the legendary Joseph Papp, the activist producer at New York’s Public Theater; Papp sent someone down for a look at the show. Hunt and Storer got home one night soon after to a message from Papp on the answering machine.

“Jeff was like a deer in the headlights,” Hunt recalls. He returned the call, and when Papp’s wife answered, Storer gave his name and said he was returning Joseph Papp’s call. Ms. Papp said “who?” and Storer was so flustered he started explaining who Joseph Papp was. “No! Who are you?” Storer crows with laughter, remembering. Once Papp got on the phone, he invited Manbites to bring Indecent Materials to the Public, slotting the show in at the beginning of his season. “I’d worshipped Papp my whole life,” says Storer. “To get a call from him was incredible.”

“The year we went to the Public,” he continues, ” was when we found out about my brother [his HIV/AIDS diagnosis]. It reinforced the idea that theater had to reflect the community. If we wanted to do something, theater was the way we could do it. It unfolded out of the necessity to define ourselves as artists and deal with what was in front of us.”

“We hadn’t met the mark to get any local or state funding, but what we did have was this letter from Joe Papp that he put in every program about this courageous North Carolina company.

“At the moment when we could have given up, that miraculous thing happened.

“Going forward was the only option.”


To be continued.

 

 

Turn, turn, turn

And now the season is September, and “the days dwindle down.” It’s a fresh theater season–but 2017-2018 will be imbued with the sense of an ending. Manbites Dog Theater–that bold upstart, that instigator, that model of theatrical activism; the mature presenter of new theatre for the thinking class; a support system for independent art theater in Durham and the Triangle–will darken next May, at the close of its 31st season.

There is no way to overstate the size of the hole this will leave. MDT founders, artistic director Jeff Storer and managing director Ed Hunt, along with the theater’s board, plan to help fill that hole with advice and money to other theater artists from a donor-advised fund they will establish at the Triangle Community Foundation with the proceeds from selling the theater’s building in the now-fashionable Foster-Geer Street zone, in the overheated downtown Durham real estate market. It is unlikely that another theater might take its space. The Manbites organization will live on with a somewhat altered mission, but there will be no place for us to go. I won’t see you at the theater.

Yes, of course, more theater-makers will find more spaces. And some of them will be great. But they will have to go some to create the kind of welcoming meeting place for public conversation about being human that Manbites Dog made. One felt that open welcome in the rooms, even in the early itinerant years, but in the theater’s 20 years in its own space on Foster Street, it has become an important physical spot in the urban intellectual fabric, a nexus of art and politics, a crossroads of thought and emotion, and a haven for those who care about such things.

Jeff Storer and Ed Hunt have agreed to a series of interviews with me, and I will be talking with many other people involved with the theater, with the aim of writing a somewhat episodic history of Manbites Dog, its impact on the community, and it importance to various artists. These pieces will run more or less side by side with my reviews of the final season’s shows, beginning this week with the Other Voices series piece, a devised work by Summer Sisters, Bad Mothers & Neglectful Wives. If you would like to talk about some aspect of Manbites Dog Theater, please contact me through the comments section. Or buttonhole me at the theater.

This series will likely be my final project for The Five Points Star, and will be my sole focus. It has been a privilege and often a joy to review and critique visual art, theater, music and dance for various publications, including this one, but it is time to wind it down. When Manbites completes its 31st season, I will conclude my 30th year of writing about the arts, and I believe after that I’ll do some other things as the days dwindle down. Thanks for reading all this time, and stick with me a little longer. And really, you ought to go ahead and get some tickets. We’re still paving paradise and putting up parking lots, but in this particular case, we do know what we’ve got, before it is gone.

 

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