Colossal COLUSSUS

The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern has just opened an amazing piece of work at Manbites Dog Theater (part of Manbites’ Other Voices series), a play that gives full scope to the group’s many talents and general fearlessness. The New Colossus, written by Tamara Kissane, was inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and may be considered a radical modernization (and Americanization) of a play that was itself radically modern when it was first produced 120 years ago. A knowledge of The Seagull enriches one’s viewing of The New Colossus, but is in no way necessary to appreciating this production. The themes are timeless: families; love and its variants; new art straining against and raging at the old, and the everlasting tussle between daring truth and comforting entertainment in theatre and literature.

Kissane has followed Chekhov closely enough that the origins remain clear, but she has changed some names and elided or eliminated some characters to create a balance between men and women, and she has written a couple of very moving scenes between women that make the story more resonant today. And her language is deliciously fresh and contemporary (coarse in places, but appropriately so). In The Seagull, the young would-be theatre artist struggles to create new forms to express his feelings and what he sees as universal truths. Kissane has embedded today’s newer forms into her script, so that video-making and video projections form an essential component of the stage play (rather than being set dressing). Little Green Pig has done a lot of experimentation with the use of video; this seamless incorporation of it with the live acting is the most successful I’ve seen.

Dana Marks directs with a very satisfying combination of boldness and delicacy, pulling powerful performances from a uniformly strong cast, and making quiet pools here and there amidst the ceaseless swirl of movement. Something’s always going on, often multiple things, as in life–and as in life, some important actions take place at a distance. Her style and pacing here recall her work with Harriet Jacobs, but Marks has achieved far greater control here, with both clearer structure and smoother fluidity, so that the stories, rather than their manner of telling, dominate the viewer’s immediate responses.

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Jaybird O’Berski as Trig (L), Alex Jackson as Konrad (C) and J Evarts as Irina, in Little Green Pig’s premiere of THE NEW COLOSSUS, by Tamara Kissane. Photo: Alex Maness.

The “broken” young man Konrad (Konstantine in the original), the aspiring theatre artist, is played by Alex Jackson, who keeps one ricocheting between sympathy and exasperation. He is balanced by his stolid counterpart, the schoolteacher Meddie (Medvedenko), portrayed by Lazarus Simmons, who is beginning to display the range of his talent. Poor Konrad is in thrall to his flashy B-actress mother, Irina; as Irina, actress J Evarts gives a tremendous performance, the largest, boldest work I’ve seen her do. She’s stunning in her casual unkindness and her stylish sexuality and her desperation to appear young and employable. She and Trig O’Ryan (Trigorin), a nastyish, self-loving author of popular potboilers are made for each other. As Trig, Jaybird O’Berski demonstrates once again his extraordinary skills as an actor. Trig’s a piece of work, but O’Berski never caricatures, never lets us despise him as inhuman–after all, he’s just a man.

Alice Rose Turner does a good job with Nina, the young girl from the neighborhood who aspires to an acting career in the big city, and with whom Konrad is in love. On preview night she was a bit tentative initially, but gained presence rapidly. She is the seagull, the free bird who both Konrad and Trig would capture for their own purposes. Turner was particularly fine in her final scene. Her counterbalance is the tough Masha, thrillingly played with dry understatement by Mara Thomas. In The Seagull, at the very beginning, Masha says “I’m in mourning for my life.” In The New Colossus, she wears that statement on her t-shirt. She’s in love with Konrad; Meddie’s in love with her–and like her mother, Pauline, she settles for the man she doesn’t love. We never see Pauline’s husband, but he asserts his position, forever texting Pauline and Masha, requiring they placate and attend to him. Pauline is in love–still–with the aging Sorin, Irina’s brother and Konrad’s uncle, on whose country place most of the action occurs. Mick Foley brings his very considerable knowledge of human behavior to the role, and as always, his nuanced acting, both physical and vocal, elicit great empathy for his character.

The scene between Masha and Nina, late in the play, late at night, in which the childhood friends comfort each other, drinking and holding hands, is quite beautiful. It has its counterpart in a similar, if more combative scene, between Pauline–exquisitely manifested by Susannah Hough–and Irina. These two scenes, in particular, hit the refresh button on The Seagull, although its feminization begins much earlier, with Kissane’s brilliant rewrite of Konstantine’s play within the play, in which she substitutes a great mother figure for Chekhov’s manly heroes.

The design team’s work is crucial to the production’s success. Miyuki Su’s set, with its dozens of upended umbrellas suspended below the lights, its shredded white curtains, its sand and grass, is really wonderful, especially in the way it allows the actors to work in the round, and off the main stage area. She, along with the playwright and stage manager Jenn Evans, designed/made/found the many props, while Jade Bettin did the excellent costuming, and Steve Tell the subtle lighting. The video work is by Nick Karner, with Ishmail Abdelkhalek and Alex Maness providing technical direction, and Jeff Alguire exerting technical control over the set. Nicola Bullock choreographed Irina’s seductive dance; Sir Lionel Mouse put together the emotive soundtrack (playlist on Spotify: “Colossus”).

The New Colossus showcases the brilliance of Durham’s most adventurous theatre artists, and their commitment to the collaborative process that can result in such powerful new work. Kissane of course had been writing on the script for a good while, but the cast and crew, all of whom have at least one other day job, put this awesome thing together in a month. Just think what they could do if they had two months. See this show, and consider whether the future of such theatre in Durham is worth your support, perhaps through Patreon, the new model for new arts outside the institutional box. LGP’s Patreon page will go live on June 6.

The New Colossus continues at Manbites Dog Theatre through June 4. Due to the high-decibel Moogfest event to occur nearby, there will be no show Sat. May 21, but there is an unusual Sunday evening show on the 22nd. Schedule and tickets here.

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Alice Rose Turner as Nina, with Konrad (Alex Jackson), in the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern’s THE NEW COLOSSUS, at Manbites Dog Theater through June 4, 2016.                     Set design by Miyuki Su. Photo: Alex Maness.

 

 

Make Love Not War

Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern premieres new work by Monica Byrne, TARANTINO’S YELLOW SPEEDO, at Manbites Dog Theater

 

Kana Hatakeyama as Eun Mi Youn and Dan Wales as Esteban Calvo in LGP's world premiere production of TARANTINO'S YELLOW SPEEDO. Photo: Alex Maness.

Kana Hatakeyama as Eun Mi Youn and Dan Wales as Esteban Calvo in LGP’s world premiere production of TARANTINO’S YELLOW SPEEDO. Photo: Alex Maness.

Durham writer Monica Byrne‘s willfully provocative new play previewed last night, and will have its official world premiere tonight at Manbites Dog Theater. It hooks you right from the start–what a title! Produced and presented by the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, its 13-member cast is tautly directed by Jaybird O’Berski. It’s about sex, personal freedom, love, and the destruction of the nation-state, more or less in that order of importance. Speedo takes place in the Olympic Village, where athletes from many cultures receive some special training in polyamory and other forms of boundary-busting, taught by “ambassadors”  from a cult idolizing a diver named Arturo Tarantino. Tarantino espoused a philosophy of separating oneself from artificial, fear-based constrictions like sexual monogamy and jealousy, and instead making love with many people. He believed that this would erase boundaries between people, lead to world peace and the dissolution of geo-political borders. He called his desirable state of loving psycho-sexual satisfaction “the zone.” One day Tarantino got so completely zoned out that, after executing an “impossible” perfect dive, he just disappeared in the bubbles. His yellow Speedo floated to the top, to become a relic for his followers, and a symbol awarded to trainees who see the light and take off their clothes for this new world order.

Nicola Bullock dancing as Khala, while Mia (Caitlin Wells) suffers in sequestration behind the scrim. Photo: Alex Maness.

Nicola Bullock dancing as Khala, while Mia (Caitlin Wells) suffers in sequestration behind the scrim. Photo: Alex Maness.

There are so many things to talk about here. The content, as illustrated by the preposterous story, has challenges for viewers all along the belief spectrum. Although the play declares the glory of polyamory, asserting its naturalness, it looks clearly at one of its costs. Main characters Khala (Nicola Bullock) and Mia (Caitlin Wells) start off as a happy married couple (trap shooters from Team USA); by the end, Mia’s wrecked and stranded on the shores of Khala’s new boundary-free world.

Structurally, the play is very clever. It’s outrageous enough to get under your guard, should you be so old-school as to have one, and Byrne and director O’Berski are very skilled at getting you to immediately suspend disbelief and go with the story. They are greatly aided in this by the Olympic-coverage-style video designed by

Cameron McCallie as a German wrestler, and Emily Anderson as a South African fencer. Photo: Alex Maness.

Cameron McCallie as a German wrestler, and Emily Anderson as a South African fencer. Photo: Alex Maness.

Alex Maness and Don Bonné. Speedo‘s outrageous enough, but not so outrageous. The only thing I found shocking was the play’s un-ambivalent declaration in favor of unprotected sex–no condoms for all these couplings. In fact, the play’s most memorable line, uttered by Khala after her training partnering with Suileman (Allen Tedder, very elegant), is about his having painted the walls of her vagina with semen graffiti. In Arturian Sex, not only must there be skin-to-skin contact, but exchange of fluids.

Yep, that’s the natural way. But making this philosophical statement strikes me as significant and ignorant, joyous and idiotic, all at once. We are hardly living in a post-AIDS world, let alone post-Herpes or post-Gonorrhea–that formerly-minor sexual pest is now drug-resistant. But Byrne can never have lived as an adult in a world without the threat of sexually transmitted diseases, and, oh!– that unfurling of the banner for sexual freedom for the glorious bodies of youth, the freedom to unsheathe –it’s an alluring, lovable cause.

And so impractical, as are the logistics of polyamory (love may be endless, but time is not), that one suspects Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo of being allegorical, on top of fantastical. There’s kind of a Liberty Leading the People quality to it, with the playwright waving the flag and urging the bold freedom fighters over the barricades. At any rate, there’re about five plays worth of ideas woven into 90 short minutes, so there is bound to be a certain amount of abstraction.

The ideas take precedence over relationship development. Khala and Mia are such interesting characters that–although Bullock and Wells were quite fine–I would have liked them to live more fully, to seem less like animations Byrne designed to illustrate her concerns. On preview night, I thought the whole play more mechanical, less vibrant than Byrne’s earlier, brilliant, What Every Girl Should Know. It is, however, far more complex and ambitious than Girl, and written in a far more bold and confident voice. One thing that makes Speedo so intriguing is that it is part of the Monica Byrne story, unfolding on the larger stage (and her Facebook page, and Twitter feed…). Byrne’s first novel also came out this week. Read the Indyweek review of Girl in the Road here.

But back to Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo. Strong cast, all appealing, though there is not enough nudity, and there is considerable weirdness with accents. Ishai Buchbinder is adorable as a Ukrainian badminton Olympian, but it’s unnerving when he slips into his Irish accent. Kana Hatakeyama, kicking ass as a North Korean field hockey competitor, lets her accent go all over the globe. Possibly this is intentional–no border in the new world order. Jess Jones excels as Fatima, a lightweight Bosnian boxer with plenty of nerve and a very enticing headscarf.

The design work for the show is particularly strong, too. Steve Tell’s lighting, the costumes by Marlyn Wells and Dana Marks,  Matt Hooks’ set, and especially, the smart music track by Adam Lindquist, all serve the greater good with panache. Director O’Berski has successfully recombined many of his best structures and gestures here. The overlapping scenes are done with finesse, and working with choreographer Nicola Bullock, he’s put together some great rushing, stage-crossing movements using the large cast. (Bullock and friends have a dance performance coming in June–more on that soon.)

Preview night was sold out, and Manbites Dog reports that tickets for this weekend are nearly gone. The show runs through June 7, but you might want to go ahead and buy advance tickets here.

 

Caitlin Wells and Nicola Bullock in Monica Byrne's TARANTINO'S YELLOW SPEEDO. At Manbites Dog through June 7. Photo: Alex Maness.

Caitlin Wells (Mia) and Nicola Bullock (Khala) in Monica Byrne’s TARANTINO’S YELLOW SPEEDO.  At Manbites Dog through June 7. Photo: Alex Maness.

 

 

 

 

 

For a Hot Time, Come on over to OUR TOWN

The cast of The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern's new production of  OUR TOWN. Photo: Alex Maness.

The cast of The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern’s new production of OUR TOWN, through September 21 at The Trotter Building. Photo: Alex Maness.

Who’d a-thunk it? A fresh, innovative, heart-sqeezing new production of Thorton Wilder’s OUR TOWN is now playing in cool Durham’s hottest hipster district. It is, naturally, brought to us by the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and director Jay O’Berski. This 1938 play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was a chestnut when people still knew what a chestnut was. Set in a small New England town early in the 20th century (although here it looks more like the Hayti community of Durham in the same time frame), its ultimate purpose is to force recognition of the preciousness of ordinary life. Having been done to death in many a middle school, and its then-surprising staging techniques superceded by even more radical methods, OUR TOWN had rather faded from the roster of plays considered for serious productions.

O’Berski likes to have many things happening simultaneously on stage; he likes to push to the edge of chaos. For him, this is a remarkably controlled and unmessy production, but the script lends it self surprisingly well to his preferences. He captures the wheeling nature of time beautifully by having the show performed in the round in The Trotter Building’s open event space; he shows the interweaving and overlapping nature of lives in a community by the way the characters move in, through and around the audience, which sits in a single row around the “stage.” As many readers will know, Wilder gathers the audience in by use of a Stage Manager/Narrator who speaks directly to us; O’Berski amplifies our sense of belonging with the physicality of his approach. There are a few moments when the difficult acoustics of the space make mush of multiple voices speaking at once, but it doesn’t really matter because the physical acting is so clear.

The cast is uniformly strong. Many of the actors perform several parts, and O’Berski made some excellent casting choices for those roles. Lakeisha Coffey plays both Mrs. Webb and Constable Warren–I had to look at the program to know that the latter was she. The same was true for Jennifer Blocker, playing the two newspaper boys and the pontificating professor. The versatile Trevor Johnson plays Mr. Webb with an insouciant conviction and charms in his other roles, especially that of the milkman circling the town on Bessie, his bicycle horse. Kyma Lassiter as the warm-hearted, dream-deferring Mrs. Gibbs is wonderfully matched with Thaddaeus Edwards as Mr. Gibbs. Edwards is a very fine actor, and here he finds yet another new face and set of mannerisms. Carly Prentis Jones plays young Rebecca Gibbs and gives the speech about the letter addressed to a person on a farm in a county in a country on Earth in the solar system, etc,. with such joyous wonder I could hardly stay in my seat. Jones is also a knock-out in her turns as Stage Manager, and when she sings, solo, “Balm in Gilead” near the play’s conclusion…it’s exquisite. Jade Arnold, too, is very strong in all his parts–the suffering, drinking organist, the minister, and the Stage Manager–and particularly commanding in the latter, as he pins each of us with his knowing eye.

Nicholson and Belfield as George and Emily.

Nicholson and Belfield as George and Emily. Photo: Jaybird O’Berski.

Teenagers George Gibbs and Emily Webb are at the heart of OUR TOWN’s story, and their actors do them proud. J. Alphonse Nicholson is an extremely talented, highly disciplined young actor still burgeoning at an almost incredible rate, and who seems to have skipped right over the self-consciously arty actor phase. He is completely believable in that tough scene where he has to tell Emily he’ll do better, a believability few men can muster, onstage or off. I’d not seen Aurelia Belfield before, but I certainly plan to again, as soon as possible. Her multi-faceted interpretation of Emily is rich and surprising, and at the end, tears were running down her face–and mine, and those all around.

Liam O’Neill and Steve Tell have contrived some lovely lighting effects; Chelsea Kurtzman’s costuming is excellent, but Justin Robinson’s music direction makes this show really special. From the opening band parade by the full cast breaking loose on “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” to its delicate reprise at the finale, the play is punctuated by beautiful singing.

I say, hallelujah. Because in OUR TOWN, in this town, the day has finally come when we can be judged on the content of our characters, and not the color of our skins.

OUR TOWN runs Thurs.-Sat. through Sept. 21. House capacity is small but every seat is equally good. Do yourself a big favor and reserve in advance.  www.brownpapertickets.com/event/418928 or call 1.800.838.3006.

 

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