Stars, Satellites and the Ferris Wheel of Love: BRIGHT HALF LIFE, at Manbites

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Women in love: JoRose (Vicky) and Tamara Kissane (Erica), in Tanya Barfield’s BRIGHT HALF LIFE, as directed by Jules Odendahl-James. At Manbites Dog Theater through March 4, 2017. Photo: Alex Maness.

Manbites Dog Theater opened a delightfully challenging and touchingly intimate recent play on February 17.  Tanya Barfield‘s Bright Half Life, which sketches nearly 50 years of love between Vicky and Erica, was first produced in 2015; this is the regional premiere. The poetic script is directed with delicately applied force by Jules Odendahl-James, who knows just when to slow down for the script’s switchbacks, and when to power out of its curves. She and the two actors, Tamara Kissane and JoRose, have made a beautiful piece of theatre.

Vicky and Erica’s story dances through time, the many short vignettes taking increased meaning through added context, like a jigsaw puzzle coming together. Certain scenes or lines repeat, with tiny variations, like all those pieces of blue sky. Essential differences in the Vicky’s and Erica’s personalities and characters are wonderfully conveyed through metaphors and astronomical references, but the practical differences in their situations play out bluntly. Kissane and JoRose ride the  waveforms and cycles of long-time love with breathtaking honesty.

Even though many of the “actions” in this 75 minute work “take place” in varied locales, watching Erica and Vicky talk and remember and have adventures and break up and get married and have fights and have children and break up and rediscover and get divorced and remember again the electric love and realize that the half-life of their star still shines and that the jumping out of airplanes and the flying of kites and and the riding of Ferris wheels are still theirs forever– all that makes it feel much more as if it takes place in a silk and velvet boudoir. One almost feels a voyeur, a secret watcher, of the very private lives of these vividly imagined women. The deliciously bifurcated experience of a play–losing oneself in it/being aware of its separateness from one–is intensified by the same dynamic playing out in these lovers’ lives, underscoring that the erotic energies which drive the love engine are very similar to those that drive artful performance.

The essential duality of a couple in love was nicely echoed in the effective set design by Sonya Leigh Drum. Using no more than a raised platform with a ramp on one end, steps in the middle and an L on the other end, along with a lot of small lamps, she made a place set apart, the women’s private terrain–yet an arrangement flexible enough to be used for office work, mattress testing, skydiving and all the rest of life. Drum also designed the costumes. Joseph Amodei’s sound mix was, on opening night, kept to such low levels that perhaps it would have been better turned off, but this may have been an attempt to further deepen the feeling of intimacy, and an effort not to drown the women, who sometimes spoke very softly. Jenni Mann Becker’s lighting goes over-bright at times, but generally is very effective at amplifying the emotional tones of the various scenes–which means it changes often, enriching the visuals.

This is a rather special production, very tightly put together, with particularly fine acting. Kissane is luminous; JoRose, radiant. Highly recommended. Through March 4.

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JoRose as Vicky, and Tamara Kissane as Erica, in Tanya Barfield’s BRIGHT HALF LIFE, playing at Manbites Dog Theater through March 4, 2017. Photo: Alex Maness.

 

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Enter THE NETHER, at Manbites Dog

I’ve been trying to figure out, for four days now, what to say about The Nether, Jennifer Haley’s 2012 exploration of the intersection of physical and virtual realities, on stage at Manbites Dog Theatre through April 23. What to say, that is, beyond “Go see this, if you like to think.”

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Doyle (Michael Foley) faces tough questions from detective Morris (Caitlin Wells) about his activities In the virtual reality world of the Nether. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

The Nether takes place in the very near future, or possibly the present; the nether is a more highly realized version of what we now call the internet, and its seductively programmed fantasy realms are somewhat subject to regulation and control by a shadowy branch of government. The play’s concerns are moral and ethical quandaries associated with human desires, couched in a suspenseful police-procedural format. Detective Morris (Caitlin Wells) suspects Sims (Michael Brocki) of running a fancy child prostitution racket in his nostalgically detailed virtual realm, in which he is Papa. Visitors log on to the Nether, and once vetted, pay to enter Papa’s world and take up a role there. The attraction, besides comfort, anonymity and lush surroundings, is Iris, a very young girl (the remarkable Marleigh Purgar-McDonald). You can do anything to Iris—she’s virtual—and she’ll regenerate.

Detective Morris, however, believes real harm is being done, and she’s out to stop it. If she can’t crack Sims, she’ll go for a user, and make him her tool, dragging Doyle (Michael Foley) into her office again and again until he gives her enough information that she can send agent Woodnut (Lazarus Simmons) into Papa’s pretty world undercover.

Is harm done by the manipulation of images or by role playing online? (And delicious it is that a play should ask, especially in a production featuring one actor working under an alias, and another who’s previously been willing to take her clothes off on stage, but not to have her performance photograph put online.) If so, where is it done, and how? Could it be wrong to imagine oneself into a world that matches one’s interior vision of delight? You can see how these questions relate not only to child pornography, but many transgressive behaviors; and to any created “world,” whether online, in an art form, or even entirely within one’s head. Haley also worries at the question of whether there can be any satisfaction (for the real human) taken in performing (virtual) actions without consequence–and questions that lack of consequence. These are just the beginnings of the philosophic mazes into which the play leads.

Jules Odendahl-James directs with marvelous restraint, eschewing histrionics in favor of a cool clarity that makes the unfolding story, with its many twists, continually surprising. It would be easy to make this play too racy, or too earnest—either way, dismiss-able—but Odendahl-James makes the longings real, the logic inexorable, and the result profoundly moving. Each character’s point of view is so compelling, and the acting is so sympathy-inducing as the individual stories unfold, that one must constantly revise one’s response. Michael Foley as Doyle was particularly fine in the Sunday matinee performance. Marleigh Purgar-McDonald, a 7th grader, has to be seen to be believed. Hers is a delicate, difficult role as Iris, and her combination of innocence and sang-froid was quite unnerving.

The bifurcated world of the play is well expressed in Sonya Leigh Drum’s set, Austin F. Powers’ very good lighting, and Joseph Amodei’s sound design, and the characters are tellingly and interestingly dressed by Ashley Nicholl Owen. Altogether, this is a completely satisfying production. This is the kind of ambiguousness that all art should aspire to—not confusion, obfuscation or coyness, but an ambiguousness that allows for the difficulty of knowing or doing the “right” thing, and the uncertainty of all judgment in the face of the desire for love.

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In the virtual reality of the Nether, Iris (Marleigh Purgar-McDonald) teaches a new game to Woodnut (Lazarus Simmons). Photo: Alan Dehmer.

THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS, onstage at Manbites Dog through May 9

Annie (Faye Goodwin) is fed by her

Annie (Faye Goodwin) is fed by her “not quite Auntie Yaroslava” AKA Baba Yaga, who eats young girls (Carly Prentis Jones) in Manbites Dog’s striking production of THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Floral matryoshka set, smallest doll nested.  Photo: BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons.

Floral matryoshka set, smallest doll nested.
Photo: BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons.

Some days, the bear eats you; some days you eat the bear.  Other times, that canny old witch Baba Yaga fattens you up before she roasts your bones for supper–The End. But in Meg Miroshnik’s contemporary Moscow, the women aren’t playing by the old rules any more, even though their lives are still as onionized as matryoshka dolls, each iteration of self constrained by a skin of old ways imposed by an ancient patriarchal society. “Action must be taken!” they cry to each other as they lurch from one perilous situation to the next doing the best they can to stay alive, protect their friends, and be happy. Between the classic beginning to a Russian fairy tale, “they lived, they were,” and “The End” (no happily ever after), these women take bold and surprising actions with stunning sang-froid, often using language that could blister paint. In the hands of director Jules Odendahl-James, the play is brazen, feminist, provocative, sad, bitingly humorous–yet another Manbites Dog production not to be missed.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) is welcomed to Russia by a customs officer (Laurel Ullman) in Manbites Dog's production of THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS. Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) is welcomed to Russia by a customs officer (Laurel Ullman) in THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS. Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

When I took Russian history in college, no women were mentioned, other than Catherine the Great and assorted czarinas. One knew of some cultural figures–Ahkmatova, Pavlova, Plisetskaya–and of course, Russian women in fiction; and that women in the USSR were being educated and trained for “male” jobs like astrophysics and utilizing heavy equipment. But even after the revolutions that created the communist state, women as political leaders were conspicuously absent. The Russian Bear was always male.

It would be difficult for the young women on stage in Miroshnik’s fascinating one-act, The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, to comprehend how large the USSR loomed for people of my age group. The insane geo-politics of the Cold War torqued everyone. Kruschev! The Iron Curtain! Duck and cover! This way to the bomb shelter! The KGB! The Gulags! The Evil Empire! On and on. By the mid-1980s, even the most ardent believers in the pure possibilities of communism had been disabused to the idea that that purity could be found in the USSR.

Raisa Gorbachova, R, with Pamela Harriman, in Washington, DC, during USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's summit meeting with US President Ronald Reagan, that led to the great thawing of the Cold War.  December, 10, 1987. Photo by: Chris Wilkins, AFP, 51500037.

Raisa Gorbachova, R, with Pamela Harriman, in Washington, DC, during USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s summit meeting with US President Ronald Reagan, that led to the great thawing of the Cold War. December, 10, 1987. Photo by: Chris Wilkins, AFP, 51500037.

So, great was the skepticism and later the celebration when Mikhail Gorbachev began to reach out for a detente with the West. Glasnost! Perestroika! With him, shockingly, was his wife, Raisa Gorbachova. No one had ever seen the Communist leaders’ wives. Scholar, philosopher, fashionista, she blazed across the Western consciousness, a completely new image of the contemporary Russian woman. The Gorbachevs soon fell from grace, but still, the image of Raisa remained overlaid on the old images of tired workers, queuing mothers, scarved peasants.

Gorbachova’s fairytale took a dark path after her husband’s ouster and the collapse of the USSR, and ended with a fast-moving leukemia in 1999. But before then, she had, as The Guardian put it, “destroyed the image of Soviet women as potato-shaped battleaxes in headscarves,” which makes her the foremother of Meg Miroshnik’s women of the Pussy Riot era.

As we all know, communism in the former USSR was replaced by the sickest form of capitalism, all repressive systems remaining firmly in place. Very few women’s voices have been heard since that transition.

Miroshnik, in an artistic way, provides a keyhole view into the strange difficult lives of young women in the new chaos of a country where change has been great, though bedrock change has not yet occurred. But, her work suggests, today’s young women are swinging on the pendulum of history in four-inch heels, battle-axes at the ready, prepared to eviscerate the bad old bear.

Annie get your axe--there's more than one way to skin a bear. Faye Goodwin as American Annie. Rehearsal photo by Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie get your axe–there’s more than one way to skin a bear. Faye Goodwin as American Annie. Rehearsal photo by Jules Odendahl-James.

The actors of the Manbites Dog production are uniformly powerful, and Odendahl-James made casting decisions that allow amazing visuals–three are tall, and three range from tiny to short–within the visual richness of Sonya Drum’s set design. The costuming, also by Drum with help from Dierdre Shipman, is a knock-out, from Auntie/Baba Yaga’s crone clothes (and mask, by Will Deedler) to Masha’s minimal dress and maximal boots. There’s first-rate lighting by Jenni Mann Becker, and excellent, appropriate live music by Bart Matthews.

But even if all this design richness were removed, these actors would get the points across. Faye Goodwin as naive American Annie–a Russian-American Jew, sent back to Moscow by her mother to improve her Russian and for some darker purpose–grows up before our eyes. She’s staying with her “auntie,” the wicked witch Baba Yaga, who Carly Prentis Jones totally nails. Jessica Flemming as Masha, the across-the-hall neighbor who befriends Annie, proves remarkably moving in this stylized role. Tiny Mikaela Saccoccio buzzes around like a dangerous insect in her pivotal role as Katya, while tall Jeanine Frost commands four different characters, including the whore Natasha. She has the most chilling stories, and is the one the others turn to when things get really rough. Laurel Ullman transforms herself repeatedly for the four remaining supporting characters. What an ensemble!

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) receives advice on the rules of Russian fairytales from Nastya the whore (Jeanine Frost). Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) receives advice on the rules of Russian fairytales from Nastya the whore (Jeanine Frost). Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) prepares to battle potatoes (Jeanine Brinell Frost) bewitched by Baba Yaga. Note the Pussy Riot-style head covering . Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie (Faye Goodwin) prepares to battle potatoes (Jeanine Frost) bewitched by Baba Yaga. Note the Pussy Riot-style head covering . Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

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