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

02-familymeeting

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.

04-hand-to-hand

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.

05-eye-to-eye

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.

 

 

Manbites Dog Plays The Trump Card

carlcard

Carl Martin in The Trump Card, adapted from the monologue by Mike Daisey. Photo: Manbites Dog Theater.

 

Manbites Dog Theater is doing it again: currently they are presenting a very fresh production of a recent stage work that is so timely that you realize that, yes–these artists are prescient. Maybe especially the playwright and monologist Mike Daisey (two of whose solo works you may have seen at PlayMakers Rep in 2009 and 2014), who has written an excoriating piece about Donald Trump and the rest of us–and put it up on his website for anyone to use. This is open license theatre.

Just as open license software may be altered by the end user, the work may be adapted, without further permissions, by the presenter. In Durham, it has been taken in hand by director Jeff Storer, who undoubtedly has gentled it from Daisey’s more threatening style of delivery. Actor Carl Martin, who has done a lot of vividly memorable work on area stages, and who has a slight physical resemblance to Trump, dominates the viewer’s consciousness completely during the 83 minute disquisition on many matters Trumpian.

Martin does not portray Trump, but discusses him, his meaning and how the hell we got here in America with this creature running amok. Daisey as a storyteller is always armed with long verbal knives, and in this typically Daiseyian, seamless looping thoughtstream analysis studded with punctuating oddities, pretty much everybody gets the rough side of Daisey’s tongue, including those in attendance at the theater. Terms like bitter humor, and mordant laughter come to mind–certainly one will laugh, but the laughter will come easier if one doesn’t mind being shamed by the man on stage.

Although the production is billed as a staged reading, it is quite a polished performance. Martin sits at a large table under bright light, with a stack of script pages on one side, an iPad propped upright before him, and two bottles of water–very like a newscaster set-up. He does not read from the pages, instead moving sections to his other side as he completes them, and using the iPad as a teleprompter. But he barely needs it–on the second night he had most of the long speech memorized, so he could pin the audience on his rapier gaze. Storer’s direction is extremely deft, reinforcing Daisey’s message and stealthily dismantling our barriers to it–not just to the facts about Donald Trump, which we may preen ourselves on already knowing, but to knowledge of our complicity in this “kristallnacht-y” situation.

I am sick of Trump; you are probably sick of Trump. Yet I recommend this show unreservedly for its trenchant analysis and channeled outrage. Some may find the language too rough, but it suits the topic.

Limited dates through Nov. 7. Tickets here: manbitesdogtheater.org/the-trump-card You can download the script here.

 

 

You Don’t Know the Troubles I Seen: brownsville song (b-side for tray), at Manbites Dog Theater

Every one has troubles and sorrows, and generally it is difficult to find a perspective where your own don’t look like the biggest, worst ones. The current show at Manbites Dog may be able to help you with that. Kimber Lee‘s brownsville song (b-side for tray) takes place in a world of trouble, right here in the USA, a world you may know some facts about, but may not have considered with full empathy. Another black kid killed, two lines in the paper, let’s move on. Kimber Lee says, time to turn the record over, play the other side.

brownsville 04

After yet another murder, the rest of the family must cope, take strength from each other, and struggle to hold on. Front: Lena (Lakeisha Coffey), Dee (Gabrielle Scales). Rear: Merrell (Wanda B. Jin), Tray (Ron Lee McGill), Junior (Lazarus Simmons). in Manbites Dog Theater’s production of brownsville song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Lee. Directed by Jeff Storer. February 25 – March 12, 2016. Photo: Ed Hunt.

Of all the things theatre is good for, its ability to provoke empathy is the most important. When Theatre holds up its mirror, and you see yourself reflected, that’s good and necessary, but more piercing are the views when the mirror is tilted away from you, to show places, people and truths not accessible to you directly. brownsville song is a kind of protest art, and like all protest art, its first demand is that you open your heart to the pain of others. In a post-show conversation on opening night, actor Wanda B. Jin spoke of catharsis–another fundamental function of theatre–and certainly there occurs here a kind of purification through suffering. The viewer, however, may not feel cleansed of anything but complacency, although if the world depicted is your world, you might feel vindicated in your rage.

Yes, it is tough, but it is first-rate. In the hands of a lesser director than Jeff Storer, it could be too painful, or worse, two-dimensional. Storer, who first saw this work at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, brings his characters into full dimensionality, full humanity: they are not dismissible. They are lovable: Grandmother Lena, raising her dead son’s two children by different mothers; teenage Tray, who wants to escape the gangs and drugs and whose every day is a walk with danger; baby sister Dee, abandoned by her mother who went off in search of a fix; that same mother, trying to make a comeback; Junior, another young man almost lost–not factoids, but people, from whom the play, the director and the actors will not allow a turning away. You feel the tragedy of Tray’s death–outlined in the opening scene by Lena (Lakeisha Coffey, magisterial, and trembling with fury)–approaching like a freight train, and like the characters, you can’t avoid it. Even more powerful, though, is the characters’ delicate rapprochement with hope, just enough hope to allow endurance.

This is a remarkable piece of theatre, and such a cogent production requires the passionate involvement of many people. Derrick Ivey designed another of his emotionally resonant, bare bones sets, which designer Andrew Parks has enhanced with some very fine lighting (note especially the “cell block” shadows on the back wall, and the way Junior is made to nearly disappear). Shelby Hahn’s minimal sound design further adds to the sense of place. The script is written is a sort of free-form poetry, and director Storer and the actors had to find its rhythms, cadences and points of emphasis. Lakeisha Coffey’s sense of timing is already well known and admired, but she takes her craft to a new level in this production. Wanda B. Jin as Merrell, the bad mother, was a tiny bit stiff on opening night, but gradually settled into this scarifying role. Lazarus Simmons as Junior plays his crucial scene with nuance and control. Ron Lee McGill as Tray carries the show (although in places he was a bit hard to hear). He’s a teenager–but he’s the man of the house. His sense of responsibility never lets him get too far from the needs of his grandmother and sister, he is determined to hold on to the family, but you feel him surging against the restraints imposed by the world outside the family. The role requires a wide range of emotion and action, and McGill fills it well.

The ensemble is completed by 14-year-old Gabrielle Scales, a student (of Carl Martin’s, who was a student of Jeff Storer’s at Duke) at the Durham School of the Arts, in her first professional production. She was astonishing in her portrayal of Dee, staying right in the moment on stage, her face a continuously changing landscape of feeling. We can hope that this wrenching production does not quench her desire to act.

brownsville song (b-side for tray) continues at Manbites Dog Theater through March 12. Tickets here. On view in the lobby gallery are the striking paintings by Cosmo Whyte which were used to illustrate Renée Alexander Craft’s lovely children’s book, I Will Love You Everywhere Always (for sale at the desk) and the production’s program.

 

brownsville 01

Tray (Ron Lee McGill), a loving, responsible brother to his emotionally fragile sister Dee (Gabrielle Scales), in Manbites Dog’s production of brownsville song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Lee. Photo: Ed Hunt.

 

mhdekm

A topnotch WordPress.com site

peter harris, tapestryweaver

TAPestry And DESIgn

Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Grand Duke" -- Director's Blog

a countdown to the next performance, March 30 - April 2, 2017

Backstrap Weaving

My weaving , my indigenous teachers, my inspiration, tutorials and more........

Social Justice For All

Working towards global equity and equality

Not At Home In It

collections/connections

inkled pink

warp, weave, be happy!

warpologynotufos

Projects finished or in process by the Warpology studio

Peggy Osterkamp's Weaving Blog

"Weaving should be fun!"

SHUTTLE WORKS STUDIO

Studio Life of a Weaver, Spinner, Dyer

This Day in North Carolina History

The people and places of the Tar Heel state day by day.

Linda Frye Burnham

Laissez les bons temps rouler

Art Menius

Roots Music, Culture, and Social Change

Mae Mai

Boldly going where no cellist has gone before...

The Upstager

All the world's an upstage.

Literary Life in Italy

Looking at Italy through literature

The Five Points Star

Cultural criticism, news, schmooze and blues radiating from Durham, NC

Silvina Spravkin Sculptor

A sculptor who makes her art in different media, such as marble, stone, and mosaic, in Pietrasanta, Italy

The Reverse Angle

Just another WordPress.com site

%d bloggers like this: