A really late review and an almost-late preview of shows at Durham’s Common Ground Theatre

Two of the Triangle's energetic theatre artists, Katja Hill and Lormarev Jones, outside of Common Ground Theatre, which hosted ROUGH DRAFT. Photo: Rachel Klem.

Two of the Triangle’s energetic theatre artists, Katja Hill and Lormarev Jones, outside of Common Ground Theatre, which hosted ROUGH DRAFT. Photo: Rachel Klem.

ROUGH DRAFT: A Night of New Solos (Common Ground Theatre June 28-29, 2013)

Summer Sisters Presents TANGLES: My Mother, Alzheimer’s and Me (Common Ground Theatre, Aug. 29-31, 2013)

Durham’s theatre scene would be much the poorer had Rachel Klem not come to town. Subtle actress, incisive director, performance space owner and manager, producer, and general creative force, Klem, along with her husband Jeff Alguire (actor, designer, etc) have provided Durham with a small, flexible theatre in which all kinds of surprising and affecting work happens. In June, Common Ground made possible the presentation of works-in-progress by two extremely interesting actor-thinkers, who have written/are writing theater pieces taken directly from their own life experiences.

The monologue never has been my favorite mode of theater, but both DEBRIS, by Katja Hill, and THE VIRGIN COOKBOOK, by Lormarev Jones, were so engaging that I’m forced to reconsider my bias. After all, I’ve been thinking about their shows for two solid months, and still find them intriguing. Both women will be familiar to local theater-goers, and many will have seen Hill’s previous work about the trials and tribulations of becoming an actor. Jones, as far as I know, had not previously presented any of her own writing, but has enriched many productions with her intense presence and gorgeous voice.

Hill took on the universal themes of life, death and stuff. While the presentation left much to be desired (she sat at a table with a notebook, the table forming a barrier between her and the audience), the content was engrossing. Hill’s mother, a Finn who married an American, lived in Sylva, NC. Cancer attacked and advanced rapidly; Hill and her then-boyfriend barely got her back to Finland to die. With what seems to me amazing fortitude, Hill wove together her mother’s stories–her life, her romance, her cancer-on-a-credit-card, her work in the plant department at Walmart, her death and its aftermath–and laced them to her own stories with ribbons of wry humor, sorrow, joy and exasperation. Anyone who has dealt with the plethora of objects left behind by the beloved dead would have gotten the metaphors instantly, but for anyone who hadn’t, Hill had a selection of stuff you just don’t know what the hell to do with for show and tell–and a telling costume. Hill’s a lovely blonde with a natural elegance which she almost disguised in grubby pants, a Walmart employee T-shirt (store number on the back) and a Nordic girl wig with long blonde braids, sloppily covered by a kerchief. Looking a bit like orphan Cinderella in the ashes, she unreeled the silk of a lifetime, opening its twist for us to see the strands, uneven but knotless. Lives are plied together like yarn. Mother’s strand, father’s strand; a third ply for daughter. Mother’s strand attenuates, leaving a snarl of broken fiber, but the spinner picks up another strand–the boyfriend, now the husband, is spun into the twist during the course of the story.

It takes a brave heart and a clear mind to formulate and present art like this, so close to the bone, seesawing between personal sentiment and universal feeling in a delicately balanced spiraling structure. Be on the lookout for DEBRIS when it falls on us again, sparkling like a diamond its own dust.

Lormarev Jones’ THE VIRGIN COOKBOOK was not as highly developed as Hill’s work, but rather more surprising. Maybe 30-year-old sexual virgins are not as rare as I think, but I am sure that there are not many who will get up on stage and tell you all about it. Jones retails some hilarious anecdotes about her upbringing: her mother worked with AIDS patients during the early awful years of the epidemic, when they were all dying. Determined that her children would not die for lack of knowledge, she made sure little Lormarev was informed far beyond the norm for her age group. On top of that, Jones’ grandfather, with whom she lived part of the time, encouraged her in no uncertain terms not to waste her time on boys. On top of that, Jones attended college at Meredith, the Baptist women’s school in Raleigh. The upshot is–she’s a virgin, and pretty much all her acquaintance gives her grief about the fact. Currently, Jones is working toward an MFA in theatre from Sarah Lawrence, and is planning to fully develop THE VIRGIN COOKBOOK as her capstone project for the degree.

In June, it was still rather rough, although the scenes in which she plays her own grandfather were beautifully realized. Jones’ tends to look down while she speaks, breaking eye contact with the audience, which diminishes her strength, but it flares up immediately when she raises her implacable virgin’s eye. She makes a lot of jokes, and never brings up the power ascribed through history to the virgin woman, but this show certainly makes you think about it. There’s a lot to be said in favor of experience, but you can always get that. You can’t ever retrieve innocence, and to have held onto it for 30 years strikes me as somewhat of a modern miracle. This is another show to look for in its next iteration.

And beginning tonight, for three nights only…

13 of the Triangle’s talented women of theatre have gotten together to workshop a piece of performance art based on Sarah Leavitt’s graphic journal TANGLES: MY MOTHER, ALZHEIMER’S AND ME. These “Summer Sisters” are year-round fearless. They take on loving, aging, loving, family, care-giving and did I mention loving even through the forgetting?

Once again, the real live art is at Common Ground. Shows at 8 pm, Aug. 29, 30, 31. $10. Part of the proceeds will go to benefit Alzheimer’s North Carolina.

Reservations: (919) 698-3870 or tickets at the door.

Artists turn on the power at Manbites for THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM

It is always a special treat to see theater work made by talented, skilled artists who have generated their synergy not in just this production, but in many plays over years, even decades. In the current show at Manbites Dog Theater, director Jeff Storer leads a dream cast of well-known and much-admired area actors in Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom (2005). It’s an ideal play for Storer: It requires a tight ensemble of actors; it is built more on storytelling than action; it explores dark reaches of the heart, and is not in a hurry about it. It has a moral, but doesn’t beat you up with it—both writer and director seem content that it catch up with you later, maybe one day when you are about to shut the door on love.

Katja Hill, Marcia Edmundson, and Derrick Ivey in The New Electric Ballroom at MDT. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Katja Hill, Marcia Edmundson, and Derrick Ivey in The New Electric Ballroom at MDT. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Marcia Edmundson, Lenore Field, and Katja Hill, as three sisters endlessly replaying their old memory-tapes and trying to keep safe from love, are more than capable of working in Walsh’s terrain of amazing language that mixes naturalism and symbology. Derrick Ivey, as the fishmonger Patsy, makes his poetic lines tumble naturally from the shy man’s mouth, and easily carries the responsibility of offering warmth and life to the sisters’ cold house. Storer, in his usual deft manner, balances the bleak with the tender, and coaxes his actors into to opening the characters’ sad, barren hearts to reveal their self-made comic tragedies and blighted longings. In 85 minutes, they lay out the proofs that risk + courage may or may not = love, but love – (risk + courage) is a null set.

You may think at first that you will not connect with these characters—Ada, Breda, Clara, and Patsy—because they don’t connect well with each other, but you do. As Breda and Clara begin to repeat their interlocking stories of their fateful night years ago at The New Electric Ballroom, they seem repellent, purposefully self-destructive. Soon you perceive that they are mired, stuck in a deep scratch in life’s record, and you begin to care for them, though it is a big relief when sweet Patsy shows up with his day’s load of fish and gossip, to relieve the miasma of feminine bitterness.

Derrick Ivey and Lenore Field at Manbites Dog. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Derrick Ivey and Lenore Field. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Although the play is ultimately very sad, it is studded with comic moments. Katja Hill as Ada doesn’t get any of the flashier ones—hers is a very quiet and nuanced performance, depending a great deal on body language. But Edmundson as Breda and Field as Clara get to exercise their considerable talents for drollery throughout. Derrick Ivey is, as usual, entirely believable no matter what he is doing. He also had the audience hooting with laughter at several points, not least during the bathing scene. The multi-talented Mr. Ivey also designed the sets and costumes, which, also as usual, make the most out of very little. (How does he do it? He is also directing the forthcoming Durham Savoyards production of Pirates of Penzance, opening March 14 at the Carolina Theatre.)

The New Electric Ballroom runs through March 9. It’s a fine script, and a wonderful opportunity to see several of the Triangle’s best at play. Tickets through www.manbitesdogtheater.org. You may also want to pick up tickets for the next show there, Little Green Pig’s Derklöwnschpankeneffekt: Two Plays for Klöwn, directed by the Hon. Michael O’Foghludha (who was dramaturg and dialect coach for Ballroom) and starring our favorite bad boys, Jay O’Berski, Jeffrey Detwiler and Carl Martin, who also have that long-time synergy thing going on. It opens March 21.

Clara (Lenore Field) and the teacake, in The New Electric Ballroom at MDT. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Clara (Lenore Field) and the teacake, in The New Electric Ballroom. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

3 plays–from hell to angels–continuing this weekend

Dorothy Lyman as Violet on the set of August, Osage County. HSN | TR

Dorothy Lyman as Violet on the set of August, Osage County. Photo: HSN | TR

In Raleigh, an impressive production of August, Osage County by Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh.

Under the intelligent, well-timed direction of Eric Woodall, August: Osage County examines three generations of an extended family at a time of particular crisis, even for them. Osage County stretches north and west from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the Kansas line, and is the kind of place on the plains where people find either contentment or the overwhelming urge to be somewhere else. The

Dorothy Lyman with cast of August, Osage County. HSN | TR.

Dorothy Lyman with cast of August, Osage County. Photo: HSN | TR.

family’s story is introduced by the patriarch, Beverly Weston (Phil Crone), as he interviews a young woman to live in and help around the house. He explains the situation: he drinks; his wife takes pills. One doesn’t cause the other, he says, it is just how it is, and they don’t interfere with each other’s habits. The habits, however, are detrimental to orderly housekeeping.

Read the my full review on CVNC. The show, in the lovely Fletcher Opera Theater, closes Dec. 9.

In Durham, at my hometown art house, troublesome weirdness acted with verve:

Candy Korn plays a role in Manbites Seventy Scenes of Halloween. Photo: MDT.

Candy Korn plays a role in Manbites’ Seventy Scenes of Halloween. Photo: MDT.

Seventy Scenes of Halloween, a mutable play by Jeffrey M. Jones, was the initial show presented by Manbites Dog Theater in the days of its bold youth, 1987, in its first awkward space at 343 West Main Street in Durham. It’s an unsettling series of short scenes that may be put together in any order the director desires, but no matter how it’s ordered, it’s not a play you can pigeonhole — making it an excellent introduction for the new, oddly named company. No one, of course, had any expectation that 25 years later Manbites would have its own building and be celebrating an unbroken quarter-century of weird and wonderful new plays. These have been years of huge change in Durham, but this funky little theater (that makes the eagle grin on every dollar it can get) has provided continuity, and community, along with the challenging art.

Read my full review on CVNC. Show closes Dec. 15.

And in Chapel Hill, a delightful, high production value version of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.  This review was first published Dec. 4 in The Indyweek, appearing in print with the headline “Season’s greetings and hellish holidays.”

Todd Lawson and Katja Hill in PlayMakers Repertory Company production of It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio PlayPhoto: Jon Gardiner

Todd Lawson and Katja Hill  at Radio Station WPRC, in the PlayMakers Repertory Company holiday  production of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Photo: Jon Gardiner

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Ray Dooley in PlayMakers Repertory Company production of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Photo: Jon Gardiner

The onslaught of holiday plays and concerts is upon us, and the roster includes many regular favorites (or yawners, depending), but this year PlayMakers Repertory Company offers an old favorite in a charming new guise. It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1947 Frank Capra film with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, for all its many merits and despite its condemnation of capitalist greed, is awash in sentimentality. This adaptation by Joe Landry is not. Sure, there’s some, but just a dusting atop a layer cake of real feeling. I went in expecting to be entertained and came away nourished.

Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play segues smoothly from the introductory “radio play” section with the five actors “reading” the many parts behind microphones, into a very active stage play in which the actors convert the few chairs and props into whatever’s needed. Along with composer/ musician Mark Lewis on piano, the cast also provides sound effects. Seeing how they make them in no way lessens their impact, even while the sight reminds us of the artfulness of what we experience. The play and this particular staging are unusually effective at exposing the artifice underpinning the theatrical experience without diminishing its magic.

Brandon Garegnani as the Angel Clarence, and Todd Lawson as George Bailey, in PlayMakers Repertory Company production of It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Photo: Jon Gardiner

Brandon Garegnani as the Angel Clarence, and Todd Lawson as George Bailey, in PRC’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Photo: Jon Gardiner

McKay Coble’s wonderful set for WPRC/ Bedford Falls is as much a character as any other, and Burke Brown’s lighting brings its many aspects to life. Todd Lawson, making his first PlayMakers appearance, is very moving as George Bailey, while MFA students Brandon Garegnani and Maren Searle give delightful performances as the angel Clarence and the lovely Mary Bailey, respectively. Durham actress Katja Hill shows her impressive range in several parts, from the child ZuZu to the vamping Violet. Ray Dooley also takes on many roles, including the mean old Mr. Potter, but as the radio announcer, he’s bright as brilliantine. This show’s highly recommended if you need to recharge your belief that yes, in spite of everything, it is a wonderful life.

The show runs through Dec. 16.

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