LIFE SUCKS. Aaron Posner’s touchingly revised Chekhov at Manbites Dog Theater

5 - Vanya and others

Thaddaeus Edwards as Uncle Vanya, Rhetta Greene as Babs, and Jock Brocki as Dr. Aster, with Faye Goodwin as Sonia and Lakeisha Coffey as Pickles, in Manbites Dog’s new production of Aaron Posner’s LIFE SUCKS., through Nov. 11, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Although the first show of its Other Voices series took place last month, Manbites Dog Theater’s own final season has just begun, appropriately, with a contemporary re-make of Anton Chekhov’s great play, Uncle Vanya–Aaron Posner’s Life Sucks. (the period is part of the title). Does it or doesn’t it? Maybe only sometimes.

For instance, it totally sucks that this is the next-to-last production Jeff Storer will direct at the theater he and his partner Ed Hunt co-founded, and damnitall, it sucks to mourn this ending of theater in Durham as we have known if for 30 years before it even occurs. But it is a fine thing to go down laughing–which one does frequently during this deft and touching exploration of the longings and frustrations of a group of people who know each other well, if not as well as they thought they did.

As you may remember, the action in Uncle Vanya is precipitated by the arrival in the country of the professor, the titular owner of an estate he’s never worked, with his young second wife, and the intention of selling up to finance his city life. Such a sale would render the professor’s daughter and her uncle homeless. Posner retains this basic plot driver, and Storer renders it even more potent than usual due to the parallel with his theatrical home, which its board has decided will soon be sold, albeit for a better purpose—and this intention will not be reversed in the fourth act.

So we are sad; we are in a time of retrospection and elegy—but Posner’s having none of that. He’s mashed up Uncle Vanya with Billy Wilder’s hilarious 1959 film Some Like It Hot and if that doesn’t make you laugh, check your pulse. Storer’s staging is highly reminiscent of Wilder’s, with everyone chasing the object of his or her desire around in circles.

4 - Vanya and Ella

Ella (Jessica Flemming) listening to Vanya (Thaddaeus Allen Edwards) as he tries to explain himself–his real self–in hopes of winning her away from the Professor. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

The Marilyn Monroe role is played here by Jessica Flemming, as Ella, and it requires no effort to understand why she’s being pursued by all and sundry: She’s a dish. But she’s sticking with her man who wears glasses, even though he now provokes more pity and irritation than love in her. Flemming gives her character’s forthright rejection of various others’ impassioned propositions a winsome quality that keeps reminding the viewer that she’s much more than a pretty face.

Ella’s interactions with her husband may be lackluster, but the Professor, beautifully played by Michael Foley, still generates sparkle with the world-wise Babs. This is Rhetta Greene’s first Manbites appearance (in the midst of death we are in life) and I expect she will have quite a fan club by the end of the run. After a career on the New York stage, and in TV and film, and a nice long rest, she has begun to appear locally. If Jeff Storer ever allowed anyone to steal his shows, she would have done it. Her portrayal of Babs is fantastic–wry, unhurried, amused, warm–and she generates heat and light even in the cooly self-centered Professor.

Michael Foley–long a mainstay of the company, now in his final role for Manbites Dog–gives one of his finest performances. His speech on age and infirmity was note-perfect on preview night, and had me sobbing into my sleeve. He plays the Professor very low key, so the content of his speeches ambushes you, and ultimately he makes the Professor a more sympathetic character than you generally find in Uncle Vanya.

7 - Dr Aster and Vanya

The doctor (Jock Brocki) trying to get Vanya (Thaddaeus Allen Edwards) to buck up. Scenic design by Sonya Leigh Drum. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

The same could be said for this production’s Vanya–Thaddaeus Allen Edwards. Vanya’s still exasperating, but somehow more lovable. Sonya Leigh Drum’s wonderful set seems designed especially for Vanya’s moment of crisis, which takes place in a truncated row boat without oars. As Vanya contemplates suicide, all the characters he has played at Manbites seem to glide across the imaginary water, across the viewers’ minds’ eyes, as if it were our own lives possibly coming to an end. Vanya is of course rescued by his friend, Dr. Aster, played here by Jock Brocki with perhaps just a little much emphasis on the doctor’s stultifying ennui.

Certainly Sonia, who’s crazy in love with him, can’t pierce the doctor’s fog. Faye Goodwin handles Sonia beautifully, and is especially adept at the self-aware switches between the play’s interior and its turning outward to inform or harangue the audience directly. The scenes between her Sonia and the doctor give the production some of its broadest humor, and her blunt self-evaluations give it a painful poignancy. In Posner’s script, Chekhov’s character Waffles has been replaced by a female character, Pickles, and Goodwin makes Sonia’s introduction of Pickles very sweet.

1 - Pickles and Sonia

Sonia (Faye Goodwin), right, introducing Pickles (Lakeisha Coffey) to the audience of Life Sucks. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

In Pickles we see that Lakeisha Coffey has found her light as a stage actor. Partly this is due to the actual light provided by Chuck Catotti’s excellent design, but mainly is it because Coffey has matured (before our very eyes on the Manbites stage) into an actor who can go far beyond her known world, and take us with her. She is captivating here, and in command of a character very different from any we’ve seen her play. Although this is a small role, she leaves a deep memory imprint with it. The scene with the puppets (designed by Angela Spivey), with which Pickles tries to seduce the universally popular Ella, is unforgettable, and will go right up there with Coffey’s characterization of Ann Atwater (Best of Enemies) in her roll call of achievments.

The production’s design team also includes two other long-time Manbites contributors: Derrick Ivey, who did the costuming; and Shelby Hahn, who has provided a rather surprising, if unobtrusive, aural analogue to the action. All the design components mesh particularly well in this show, supporting the script, the acting and the wise and gentle direction. Contrary to what the title might lead you to think, this play and its production here make you feel better about almost everything. Rhetta Greene’s Babs has a lovely speech about saying her gratitudes every day, and Thaddaeus Edwards’ Vanya declares, with angst and joy, that all he wants is to love and be loved (cue Marilyn Monroe singing “I Just Want to Loved By You”). Taken together, these two speeches strike me as reflecting director Storer’s own values: this show seems like a statement of grace in an ungraceful world.

Given the size of the crowd at preview, and on opening night, advance ticket purchase is advisable.

2 - Babs and Professor

Rhetta Greene’s captivating Babs bringing out the sweetness in the pompous Professor (Michael Foley) in Aaron Posner’s LIFE SUCKS. The Manbites Dog Theater production, directed by Jeff Storer, runs through Nov. 11, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

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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.

Percy & Chloe 3

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.

Percy & Junior 2

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.

Percy & Chloe 2

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.

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.

mdt01-roy-and-walt

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.

mdt03-ray-walt-daughter

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.

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