What Will We Remember After the Meltdown? Manbites Dog Presents MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY

(L-R) Sam (Geraud Staton), Jenny (Lormarev Jones), Matt (Michael Brocki), and Colleen (Carly Prentis Jones) rehearse for some primetime historical re-enactment. Photo: Ed Hunt.

(L-R) Sam (Geraud Staton), Jenny (Lormarev Jones), Matt (Michael Brocki), and Colleen (Carly Prentis Jones) rehearse for some primetime historical re-enactment. Photo: Ed Hunt.

I may be the worst person or the best to consider Anne Washburn’s 2012 work, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, which uses the long-running TV show The Simpsons to look at what a culture remembers, and how those memories morph into mythologies which themselves continue to evolve–or devolve. This is because I have never seen any episode of that show, or any part of one, having found the ubiquitous references to it more than sufficient to inform me of its basic qualities, and relieve me of any perceived necessity for partaking of this cultural phenomenon, with its hideous cartooning and crass tone.

Thus I came to Manbites Dog Theater‘s current production with both ignorance about and bias against its source material.

Despite my personal abhorrence for the very idea of cultural mythologies deriving from television, since the inception of broadcast, they have done so, and Washburn’s concept is perfectly valid, even if her script is a little wonky and confusing in places. But if you can make the leaps with her, and the wonderful cast at Manbites, she and they offer plenty to think on.

Also, the production is funny and delightful.

Directed by Jeff Storer, an expansive humanist, Mr. Burns pokes at the questions of how we remember; what we do with memories shared by the culture at large; how memory, stripped down to a series of iconic essentials, becomes mythic; and even hints at Platonic forms in these myths made by us humans on our Homerian epic journey through time. It also includes some biting remarks on the cartoon form, and a nasty little fight over the values of aesthetics vs those of entertainment. “No motivation, no consequence,” says Julie Oliver’s character during the second act. “That’s the POINT of a cartoon.” And–“things aren’t funny when they’re true: they’re awful!” No beauty or sublimity here.

The cast of nine, with one exception, are well-known and much admired local actors who have worked together in numerous combinations over many years: Michael Brocki, Marcia Edmundson, Derrick Ivey, Carly Prentiss Jones, Lormarev Jones, Bart Matthews, Julie Oliver and Geraud Staton. The well of trained, practicing theatrical talent in this area is deep and wide, and a company like Manbites can put together casts as if it were a repertory company of resident artists. There is nothing that compares with the work done by a cast like this, that begins any new complex theatrical with pre-existing trust and respect. On opening night of Mr. Burns, this group was as wide-open as I’ve ever seen any of them, and that is saying quite a bit. The one new person is Emily Levinstone, a Duke music major with a very good voice. She leads the chorus, and Bart Matthews provides the music, on stage and off, with accordion, piano and guitar. (Matthews wrote the score for this production–the original score is by Michael Friedman.)

The play’s three acts are very different, and even buffered by intermissions, the transitions can be jolting. Opening with a few traumatized survivors of a world-wide apocalypse sitting around a campfire in the very near future, it moves to a time seven years hence, with the survivors rebuilding lives and re-creating from fragments the myth of their lifetimes: The Simpsons, and then to 75 years beyond that, when the story has acquired a Wagnerian tone. In a theatrical sense, the show changes from a moody art-house scene, to “spontaneous” singing, to ensemble work with higher production values, to a truly fabulous classic musical song-and-dance routine–a seamless medley of pop songs (“it’s the end of the world as I know it but I feel fine”)–to the grandly conceived operatic finale. The singers enter chanting “D’oh! D’oh! D’oh!”

Song and dance medley from Act II. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Song and dance medley from Act II. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

However you may respond to the script, there can be nothing but admiration for the acting–and the singing. Derrick Ivey just continues to astonish. When he, the stranger Gibson just admitted to the campfire, jumps up and begins bellowing a Gilbert and Sullivan ditty, soon luring the others into a charming rendition of “English Man,” the audience nearly fell out of our seats from the jolt of cognitive dissonance (G&S at MDT??!). Another character says, oh, you must be an aficionado, and Gibson replies, perfectly deadpan: “It’s worse that that. I belong to an amateur society.” Derrick Ivey, of course, is a mainstay of The Durham Savoyards. In addition to having served as scenic and costume designer (and mask maker) for this production, Ivey also plays the titular Mr. Burns, who is (now I know) the anti-hero. He is particularly fine in the final fighting (choreographed by Jeff A. R. Jones) with Bart Simpson, played by Lormarev Jones.

Jones outdoes herself here, in both speech and action, and her singing voice is very powerful, especially in “This is the moment when I say goodbye to everything.” Geraud Staton, who has a very moving scene earlier with Ivey, also possesses a mellifluous voice. When he sings “everything will be alright,” you believe him, as improbable as the lulling statement sounds. Bart (Lormarev Jones) and the ensemble close the show with the unambiguous statement of survivors: “I’m not afraid of anything…I will meet life splendidly. Yes, splendidly.”

That’s worth mythologizing.

Mr. Burns continues at Manbites Dog Theater through Nov.7. Tickets here.  NOTE the early start time.

A post-apocalypse society enacts heroic myths from the old days. (l-r) Michael Brocki, Derrick Ivey, Lormarev Jones, Carly Prentis Jones, Geraud Staton Photo: Alan Dehmer.

A post-apocalypse society enacts heroic myths from the old days.
(l-r) Michael Brocki, Derrick Ivey, Lormarev Jones, Carly Prentis Jones, Geraud Staton
Photo: Alan Dehmer.

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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.

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