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.

Oh! Little REDBIRD: Bright New Plays at ArtsCenter Stage

Most of the REDBIRD gang. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Most of the collaborating troupe that’s making REDBIRD sing. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

The Carrboro ArtsCenter has generally been a key player in the local theatre scene since its founding in 1974, and has been fortunate in its leaders, from Mary Ruth through Derrick Ivey and Emily Ranii. But Jeri Lynn Schulke, current artistic director of ArtsCenter Stage, has particularly championed–and commissioned–new work for the stage since taking that position. March 13 saw the first blossoming of her most strenuous effort yet, made in collaboration with, and major support from, Dorrie Casey. Casey is one of those protean artists who explore every aspect–she’s acted, sung, written, directed, designed and criticized–and now dreamed up and co-produced a festival of new one-act plays by North Carolinians. The Schulke-Casey team commissioned the plays and put together a dream team of about 30 theatre artists to present five works in two programs. This is community theatre, but not volunteer. Every one working on this is getting paid. “Not a living wage, said Casey, “but a respectful amount of money.” The first three of these new works debuted on the 13th; the second two will premiere tonight.

The Triangle is rich in theatre. Both the university-based and the independent theaters do amazing work year in, year out. But the REDBIRD festival strikes me as marking a significant step forward in our cultural growth. The world has long praised North Carolina writers, and this (first?) festival capitalizes on the well-known names of some of them–four of the five plays are adaptations from other forms. On opening night, all the authors and playwrights were in the house, if not on the stage.

Jane Holding in Saints Have Mothers. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Jane Holding in Saints Have Mothers. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

First up on Program One is Jane Holding’s adaptation of Allan Gurganus’ Saints Have Mothers, from his novella collection Local Souls, performed by her with her customary entrancing blend of bold and bashful. Her intoxicating speaking voice, cultivated by reading aloud since childhood, glides from character to character as Holding tells a complicated story of a thwarted poet’s love for her daughter and the predicaments in which it lands her. Nothing can take the Southern out of that voice, though it knows many variants. Like most of Gurganus’ characters, Jean is eccentric, wacky with energies seeking outlets, and very very talkative, but never “derange-o” as some kids in the mall call her. After a deeply traumatic and ridiculous series of events (don’t want to spoil the surprise for those who haven’t read the story), Jean’s on the ferry to Ocracoke, having been instructed to “gather” herself and get out of everyone’s hair. Director Tamara Kissane (mother of a daughter herself) has created a pleasing amount of action for this extended monologue. She has Jean bump and struggle up the steps to the ferry’s upper deck with much luggage, where she takes over two benches in the sun, pulling things out of her many totes and shopping bags to illustrate her tale, and makes the story close with the ferry’s arrival in harbor, so that Jean clatters and bumps her awkward way offstage into the next chapter. She’s lightened her load by an item or two. Very smart.

Gurganus’ grand, wry style, both embroidered and cut to the quick, gets to its destinations via many diversionary paths and lacunae, but never loses sight of the operatic human feelings that inform it. Holding “made many passes” over the story, successfully condensing it to its most telling and dramatic elements for the stage, without altering the tempo so important to Gurganus’ storytelling. Both the original and the adaptation make you hoot with laughter, cringe sometimes, and sometimes cry–but the in stage version, Jean’s pain, anger, relief and mystification are more directly communicated and felt.

Tom Marriott and Lenore Field in Linnaeus Forgets. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Tom Marriott and Lenore Field in Linnaeus Forgets. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

The program’s second work, Linnaeus Forgets, was adapted from a Fred Chappell short story of the same title by Marianne Gingher and Debby Seabrooke, and is absolutely delightful. It takes quite a few liberties with the original, but Chappell laughed and nodded and shook his head in amazement from the front row during the performance. Gingher and Seabrooke have made some of the story into songs (some original music by Sam Gingher), wonderfully sung by Greg Hohn in period costume and wig, and made other parts into puppetry, and substituted a fabulous claymation video sequence for description of what Linnaeus sees through his magnifying glass.  The two beautifully caught Chappell’s blend of erudition and simplicity; his love for the fantastical and the ordinary (sex and love fall into both categories), and his deep sympathy for his characters. They even made up rhymes that sound like Fred Chappell rhymes–“no, no,” Chappell said afterwards, chuckling, “those weren’t mine, those were all Marianne’s.”

Greg Hohn also directs, and he keeps the pace zesty and the laughs coming. Jimmy Magoo operates and speaks for a marvelous puppet, and he might speak a little more loudly, but that was the only problem. Tom Marriott is completely wonderful as the aged, dreaming scientist, and most charming waltzing with his wife (Lenore Field), still a coquette after all the years. Special kudos to the costume designer, Marissa Erickson.

Tom Marriott also directs the program’s final work, perhaps its most difficult and ambitious. Michael A. Smith has made a first-rate adaptation of Nancy Peacock’s 1996 novel, Life Without Water, set in 1969-1975, mostly in a Chatham County that time has nearly erased. It’s a good moment to revisit this story. Maybe if we look back carefully enough on the Vietnam war, we might find someway out of the morass of war we’re sinking in now. Life Without Water is a small book that contains an outsized story, and I didn’t see how it could be squeezed into a one-act play with a small number of characters.

But Smith, with, I believe, some ideas from director Marriott, conceived a simple set-up in which daughter Cedar (Jane Allen Wilson, kinetic and commanding) tells her story, with her mother Sara (Marcia Edmundson, softly aged, still baffled by the buffeting events) there to agree, augment, argue and echo. Marcia Edmundson can evoke big emotions with the most economical of gestures, and her little shiftings and turnings away at difficult moments had me stifling sobs at times. The house so crucial to the story, Two Moons, is present in an excellent changing photo/video backdrop made by photographer Catharine Carter and video designer Joseph Amodei. That this is Cedar’s story, and Sara’s in it, is made clear by Cedar controlling the laptop on stage that controls the images. Brilliant. There’s also great period-appropriate sound design by Tom Guild, and again, Erickson’s costuming is strong: she’s put mother and daughter both in the dark red of placental blood. It was very hard to keep in mind that they weren’t actually mother and daughter, so natural–free and easy–with each other are the actors, and so well-timed is the direction.

Marcia Edmundson, Two Moons, and Jane Allen Wilson in Life Without Water. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

Marcia Edmundson as Sara, Two Moons, and Jane Allen Wilson as Cedar, in Life Without Water. Photo courtesy the ArtsCenter.

That three quite different plays could appear smoothly on the same stage during the same evening, in a modest theater with minimum backstage facilities and a tiny control booth, speaks of the high levels of skill and organization that have gone into making this festival. There were no delays; there were no technical problems. Just three hours of exhilarating, artful theatre. Made in North Carolina, on view in the Paris of the Piedmont.

For the remaining schedule and to purchase tickets, go here.

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Oh, little red bird come to my window sill
Been so lonesome, shaking that morning chill
Oh, little red bird open your mouth and say
Been so lonesome, just about flown away

So long now I’ve been out
In the rain and snow
But winter’s come and gone
A little bird told me so

From “Winter’s Come and Gone”  by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

The REDBIRD Flies Tonight from the ArtsCenter Stage

Redbird Postcard Revised_etix

Two years ago, Dorrie Casey, who’s done pretty much everything else in theatre, decided her next adventure would be a festival of new plays. Add producer to her credits, please, because starting tonight, five new plays by North Carolinians will debut at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. Heavily underwritten by Casey and produced by her and Jeri Lynn Schulke, the artistic director of ArtsCenter Stage, REDBIRD promises to be as showy as its name, with the five works premiering over two opening nights. It’s a significant milestone for non-university theatre here.

Tonight’s first first night will include Michael A. Smith’s adaptation of Nancy Peacock‘s first novel, Life Without Water. Peacock is my contemporary (Chapel Hill High School Class of 1972) and the world she imagined in her book resonated strongly with me–and with Tom Marriott, who directs. He too has lived without water. “The play is very, very moving for me,” he said, “and to have Marcia Edmundson and Jane Allen Wilson—!” Here he threw up his hands and grinned with the delight of working with these two splendid women. Marriott’s been making theatre in the Triangle area since 1969, “poor theatre,” as he says, and has been a crucial instigator in the birth and growth of the “not-PlayMakers theatre scene” currently thriving here. This is an ideal situation for the birth of a new play: everyone involved knows everyone else’s art and can also bring intensely local knowledge to this work. The newest member of the team is Joseph Amodei, who’s doing the multimedia. The photographer Catharine Carter is another longtime Chatham County person, and for the backdrop imagery she has photographed the house Nancy Peacock lived in back in the day.

Also on tonight’s bill is the ineffable Jane Holding, who has adapted a story from her friend Allan Gurganus’s recent Local Souls. Holding and Gurganus have been friends since 1969, and share similar eastern North Carolina backgrounds. Part of their friendship involves reading to each other, so Holding knew Gurganus’ characters and their stories long before the book was published, and knows their language and their rhythms deep in her soul (Holding collaborated with Gurganus on the stage adaptation of his Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All). Holding will embody Jean, mother of Caitlin, for whom Jean put herself in the background. But in Saints Have Mothers,  Jean’s back up front. Holding has told me that this story was important to her, as “more than anything, I wanted to be a good mother.” The insightful Tamara Kissane directs. Of course, Holding and Kissane have previous theatre connections, too–Kissane played Holding’s daughter in Little Green Pig’s fantastic all-female Richie.

Just to prove that ALL the excellent writers in the state do not live in the Triangle, Greensboro will be well-represented in the third piece on tonight’s bill, Linnaeus Forgets. The short story’s by my hero Fred Chappell; the adaptation by Marianne Gingher and Debby Seabrooke. Lenore Field, Greg Hohn, who also directs, and the indefatigueable Tom Marriott will act (and waltz), and Jimmy Magoo will handle the puppets.

On the 14th, the second opening night will feature another new work by Howard L. Craft, whose Freight was such a smashing success in January (it will receive a New York production this summer). Craft has adapted from historian David Cecelski’s book for The Fire of Freedom, and the character Abraham Galloway will be played by Jade Arnold. Chaunesti Webb directs.

The REDBIRD’S fifth work is Property, by Dana Coen, director of the UNC-CH Writing for the Stage and Screen program, and examines outsiders’ and locals’ relationships with the land and “sustainability.” Coen directs Alex Thompson, Melanie Rio and Brandon Rafalson.

REDBIRD has a design team, too, studded with well-known local names. The whole damn shebang is stage-managed by the amazing Emma Nadeau. “She’s the hub of the spinning wheel,” said Jeri Lynn Schulke. Maybe if we stomp our feet, she’ll come out at the end with her accordion.

REDBIRD runs two weekends only! with the shows in rolling repertory. Check http://www.artscenterlive.org for which is when, and get your tickets.

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