The Wonderful World of Disney? See the dark side in Manbites’ Season Opener

Manbites Dog Theater opened its 30th season (!) last night with a strange, compelling little play with a big long title: A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, by Lucas Hnath. Got that? Hereafter to be referred to as Walt. The play was first produced at Soho Rep in 2013; at Manbites, it is a co-production with StreetSigns, and is directed by Joseph Megel.

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Derrick Ivey as Walt Disney in Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, directed by Joseph Megel. At Manbites Dog Theater through Oct. 1, 2016. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

It is not beside the point that Hnath, whose age does not seem to be anywhere on the internet, but I guessitmate to be 30ish, grew up in Orlando, Florida. There’s no doubt that would make for a different view of Walt Disney than that of a child who grew up conflating Walt Disney and Walter Cronkite, and who looked forward all week to “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights.  I suspect that Hnath’s is an accurate portrayal of the man who Disneyfied America: In Hnath’s play, Walt Disney is not a benign character.

Instead, he’s a casually cruel narcissist, or perhaps more accurately, a megalomaniac. The play’s characters are Walt, his brother Roy, Walt’s daughter (unnamed) and her husband Ron, and they are played here by a tight foursome of some of the Triangle’s strong actors, led by Derrick Ivey. Director Joseph Megel, in his inimitable way, coaxes maximum human feeling out of the cerebral script–and quite a few unexpected laughs.

As its title indicates, Walt‘s device is to cloak itself as a reading of a screenplay: everyone flips through pages in big black notebooks, and the shot directions form part of each speech, many of which are chopped sentence fragments. Although Hnath uses the characters to make larger points about families, personal power, imagination and mad ambition, legalized theft, the inorganic making of sanitized pretend-places, the immortality of ideas and the inescapability of death even for the “most important” people, Megel disallows caricaturization. Never are his characters mere signifiers for the playwright’s abundant ideas.

Megel has many fine qualities as a director–pacing, timimg, tone, choice of material and actors–but it is his insistence on the humanity of all the figures on the boards that is most important to the power of his work. Like Manbites’ artistic director Jeff Storer, Megel has a heart big enough to encompass the realness of all sorts of people–while turning them inside out and revealing their pitiful flaws and awful fears, along with their strengths and glories.

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Elisabeth Lewis Corley, left, as Roy Disney and Derrick Ivey as Walt. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Derrick Ivey continues to surpass himself. He exudes charisma, even as his Walt reveals the nastiness behind the public persona, and he contrives to look just like Disney. Elisabeth Lewis Corley, despite being undeniably female, gives an affecting performance as Roy Disney, Walt’s bitterly loyal make-it-happen man and kicking post. The excellent Lakeisha Coffey is under-utilized here, but sizzles in her key speech, and David Berberian is wonderful as her sweet but dumb husband. Victoria Ralston reinforced their characters with telling costuming. The excellent set by Sonya Leigh Drum is augmented by Joseph Amodei’s video and sound design, and Andrew Parks’ lighting.

Walt is another don’t-miss-this production from Manbites–and a well-timed cautionary tale about a forceful man with outsized ambitions and a bottomless well of self-regard.

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David Berberian, left, as Walt’s son-in-law, and Lakeisha Coffey, right, as Walt’s daughter, with Derrick Ivey as Walt Disney, on Sonya Leigh Drum’s sharp set at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney runs through October 1, 2016, at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham. Tickets 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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

Our Super-Heroes, Now Working Magic at Manbites Dog Theater

Marcia Edmundson, Lakeisha Coffey, Thaddaeus Edwards, and Mary Guthrie as The Fathom Town Enforcers of SPIRITS TO ENFORCE, at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Marcia Edmundson, Lakeisha Coffey, Thaddaeus Edwards, and Mary Guthrie as The Fathom Town Enforcers, fundraising (or not) from their submarine lair, in SPIRITS TO ENFORCE,  now playing at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

The play’s the thing in Mickle Maher’s smart, kind, complex investigation of The Tempest and theatre-making, which has just opened at Manbites Dog Theater, where it is marvelously directed by Jeff Storer.  Spirits To Enforce has levels beyond levels, but our super-heroes of the stage surmount all obstacles and overcome the dastardly evil-doers with the power their arts. It’s fine and funny and I suggest you see it while you may (through May 10). My proper review will run in next week’s Indy, but in the meantime, here are a few photos to consider. I’ll just add that this show offers the unusual opportunity to witness a second female interpretation this season of Prospero (following Julie Fishell’s intriguing version at PlayMakers). Marcia Edmundson doesn’t get to give all the lines, as she’s busy being a super-hero and a fundraiser, but she speaks enough of them to make one long to see her fully in the role. Spirits to Enforce is tantalizing that way, with all the characters.

 

Jon Haas as The Tune/Ferdinand and Jessica Flemming as Memory Lass/Miranda in the current Manbites Dog production of SPIRITS TO ENFORCE. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Jon Haas as The Tune/Ferdinand and Jessica Flemming as Memory Lass/Miranda in the current Manbites Dog production of SPIRITS TO ENFORCE. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Mary Michelle Guthrie as The Silhouette has a beautiful scene at play's end in Mickle Maher's SPIRITS TO ENFORCE, directed by Jeff Storer. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Mary Michelle Guthrie as The Silhouette has a beautiful scene at play’s end in Mickle Maher’s enchanting SPIRITS TO ENFORCE, directed by Jeff Storer. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

J Evarts, The Bad Map, aka Trinculo, exercises her talents in comic confusion in SPIRITS TO ENFORCE. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

J Evarts, The Bad Map, aka Trinculo, exercises her considerable talent at comic confusion in Manbites’ SPIRITS TO ENFORCE. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

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