Aides-mémoire: MARJORIE PRIME, at Manbites Dog Theater

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Jon (Michael Brocki) with his mother-in-law Marjorie (Marcia Edmunson), who is losing her memory in Jordan Harrison’s MARJORIE PRIME, directed at Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater by Jeff Storer. Through May 13, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Aides-mémoire, how they gain in importance as one ages. Lists proliferate; photo albums; calendar reminders; pill boxes; one’s own name taped to the mirror–and still memory goes its own strange ways, coyly hiding behind gauzy curtains; seeming to vanish, but occasionally surfacing all a-glow from lightless pools in the brain’s lacunae. Dying from the moment we are born, we repress that knowledge until we begin to forget, and the dying becomes the living as we hunt for consolation among memories, our own and those of others.

As epigraph for her new novel, The Dark Flood Rises, Margaret Drabble quotes D.H. Lawrence, from his poem, The Ship of Death, and takes her title from it.

“Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.”

So it is for Marjorie, in the thoughtful 2015 play by Jordan Harrison now at Manbites, directed with his usual empathetic acumen by Jeff Storer, who is also quite willing to prod the monsters under the bed with a sharp stick, just to see what they might do. Marjorie Prime explores the future of forgetting and remembering: artificial intelligence housed in artificial bodies, to keep us company and remind us of who we are.

Marjorie, delicately portrayed by the luminous Marcia Edmundson, is old. Her husband’s dead; she’s losing her memory and bodily control to dementia, but still wit and temper flash. Around her assisted-living living room in Sonya Leigh Drum’s spare but emotive set are placed shelf-boxes containing various aides-mémoire (a scrawl of writing–People I want to remember–taped to a tin box, and so forth). These are reminiscent of Joseph Cornell memory boxes, but they also seem like Stations of the Cross for an ordinary mortal, places to pause on the painful journey. The between-the-worlds quality of Drum’s set is augmented wonderfully by excellent lighting, projections and sound by Andrew Parks and Joseph Amodei.

But Marjorie is not alone. She has Walter Prime, her husband as he appeared in his prime, thanks to computer engineering and some Frankensteinian physical conjuring that is doubtless on the actual horizon. The Primes, as these artificial intelligences are called, can learn and process information, even to the point of drawing inferences and displaying compassion. And they’re there to help, like highly evolved Roombas. Derrick Ivey gives Walter both machine qualities and living warmth in an astounding performance in which he somehow effaces the human while displaying a range of human qualities. There’s a moment when Walter’s given a piece of terrible information and his response is so life-like that it chilled me to the core. Will science soon reproduce at will the heart’s intelligence, so hard-won through millennia of genetic selection and the body’s short experiential life?

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Derrick Ivey as Walter, the artificial intelligence in a simulacrum of Marjorie’s late husband’s body in his prime, in MARJORIE PRIME at Manbites Dog. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Marjorie also has her daughter, Tess, played with exhausting verisimilitude by Lenore Field. Tess bustles around, plumping and straightening, griping about the staff, alternating between anger and gentleness, obsessed with everyone’s memories. As her husband Jon, Michael Brocki lowers all his shields and gives the most wonderful performance I’ve seen by him. Jon’s a loving son-in-law and patient husband who does his best to assuage everyone’s grief. Eventually he too must turn for consolation to his own AI companion. For while losing our own memories is bad enough, living to be unremembered by others is far worse.

The play hints at an even more frightening prospect. Human flesh will die and human souls pass into the unknown–but these fully-trained artificial intelligences in unliving bodies will not; and, as W.B. Yeats wrote, they will not “know that what disturbs our blood/Is but its longing for the tomb.”

O brave new world, that has such people in’t.

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Jon (Michael Brocki) lost in his memories of his late wife Tess (Lenore Field) in MARJORIE PRIME, at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

I’ve rarely been so unsettled by a play. Recommended for all thinking adults. Through May 13 in bustling downtown Durham. Tickets here.

Howard L. Craft’s New Play at Manbites: More Miraculous than Mundane

Durham playwright Howard L. Craft has leapt to a higher level of prowess with The Miraculous and the Mundane, his new two-act piece now in a workshop production at Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater, in association with StreetSigns. This four-character play deals with a lot of life’s hard stuff, but–although its notes and chords are words and sentences–its affect is much like that of a large complex piece of music. The sounds, the rhythms, the undertones and overtones, the minor chords top-dressed with flowers of laughter, the modulations and sudden reversals of tempi and mood: all are so richly orchestrated that you could just listen to the sounds and get to their purport, if not to the details of this story. It is one hell of a piece of writing, and director Joseph Megel, continuing his multi-play relationship with Craft and his work, knows just what to do with it.

Unlike Craft’s FREIGHT, which manipulates time and space to tell of the sameness of a Black man’s fate in America over many decades, The Miraculous and the Mundane takes place in this here and now. It is set in the Durham of today, and it shows a Black family grappling with a fate unconnected to race: Dementia.

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Trevor Johnson as Percy and Lakeisha Coffey as his daughter Chloe in THE MIRACULOUS AND THE MUNDANE, by Howard L. Craft, in the current workshop production at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Ed Hunt.

 

Percy Nelson, scorchingly played by Trevor Johnson (his most vivid and heartfelt performance to date), along with his best friend Bone, portrayed by the completely charming Irving W. Truitt, Jr. (they “go back like Blacks and Cadillacs”), survived the Viet Nam War, where they fought as Marines–but Percy’s losing the battle with memory. He retreats from one scant cover to another, but finally the only one in denial about the presence of the enemy is Bone. Percy’s daughter Chloe faces the facts first, and in this role Lakeisha Coffey once again excels herself. Ron Lee McGill, last seen at Manbites as the struggling brother in brownsville song (b-side for tray), has developed considerably as an actor, and he gives the frustrated, angry, Junior a frantic kind of stoicism, then cracks him right open in a crucial scene. Joseph’s Megel’s astute direction is in evidence here, forcing us to contend with the uncomfortable reality of Junior, who is kind of a jerk until he’s not. Junior takes up a lot of space and keeps the atmosphere edgy and potentially threatening.

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Trevor Johnson, left, as Percy, and Ron Lee McGill as his son Junior, in Howard L. Craft’s new play THE MIRACULOUS AND THE MUNDANE, at Manbites Dog Theater through April 1, 2017. Photo: Ed Hunt.

 

In addition to chronicling a brave man’s descent into the hell of dementia, and the concommittant downward suction on his family and friend, The Miraculous and the Mundane limns the freedoms and constrictions of a hard-earned middle-class life on Alston Avenue. After the war, Bone started a car repair shop, and Percy a dry cleaners. They have both done well in business. Percy put his two children through college, has a comfortable house, still runs the cleaners. He mourns his wife, who was killed in a car accident a few years previously. Daughter Chloe (Spelman graduate; MBA), having just received another humiliation from her cheating husband, has come home for a while, and it is she who realizes that something is wrong with Daddy. Coffey gives a powerful performance as the secretive wounded wife/daddy’s girl/frightened good daughter/pissed off sister/caretaker of the father who no longer knows her. She literally vibrates with emotion, and often had me in sympathetic tears.

Junior, a unpromoted bicycle cop with the Durham police, refuses to see Percy’s decline, because he’s just about to lose his home due to an adjustable rate mortgage and the self-deluding thinking that led up to taking it out, and he is focused on getting Daddy to lend him the needed money. He is also married to a white woman, whose father wants to bail them out. So Junior, in addition to having all the issues that come with being a strong father’s junior, is in a terrible squeeze. He’s getting no respect anywhere, and getting nagged at everywhere (none of it his fault, of course), he’s got to satisfy the bank, and he absolutely is not going to take the money from a white man, even though the man’s now family. After a devastating scene of father-son sparring, Percy refuses to lend the money and when Junior storms out, Percy tells Chloe, with disgust, sorrow and a kind of perverse pride, “your brother married a crazy white woman when he could have married Black royalty.”

Now this right here is one of the reasons I love to see a Howard L. Craft play. I cannot walk into a room in real life where anyone would say that as long as I was there–that and quite a few other of the choice lines and small revelations that stand out for their verisimilitude, like bottleneck guitar riffs above the rich thrumming of the textual music in The Miraculous and the Mundane. (There is also an excellent soundtrack by Joseph Amodei, who did the smart lighting, too.) Craft did it with Caleb Calypso, he certainly did it with FREIGHT, and he does it here–he takes me to places and understandings that are not available to me outside of art. The wonderful flip side to that is that the same plays show, to other viewers, a world they know but rarely see depicted on stage. I dare to hope that Howard L. Craft will one day be known as a 21st century August Wilson…perhaps there will even be a Durham cycle of plays.

This is theatre at its most miraculous, not stinting on philosophy, but giving us back the mundane, a little polished up so we can see it better–our little lives projected large, with dramatic incidents as overwhelming as we feel them to be in the privacy of our dogged dailiness. Some–a great deal–of The Miraculous and the Mundane is completely particular to Black people (and thankful I am to peer into that reality and even more to listen to it) but the greater part is simply particular to people. It feels honest, it feels real. After the opening night performance, the actors told me, separately, that the familiar realness was partly why they were able to get the workshop production into such an advanced stage of readiness in a mere two and a half weeks. Craft said that he’d written the story using the people and places and speech patterns he knows–“these are my uncles,” he said of Percy and Bone–and from personal knowledge of the terrible progress of dementia through a family. Since the personal is political, this play is political–but it is not propagandistic, theoretical, conceptual, or speculative. The only question is whether you will be able to get tickets for this limited workshop run, or if you will have to wait for the full production, tentatively scheduled at Manbites Dog Theater early in 2018.

Very highly recommended. Through April 1. Tickets here.

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Daughter and Daddy: Lakeisha Coffey and Trevor Johnson as Percy and Chloe in THE MIRACULOUS AND THE MUNDANE, by Howard L. Craft, at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Ed Hunt.

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.

 

 

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