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.

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Just Passing Through: The Open House, at Manbites Dog Theater

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L TO R: J Evarts, Matthew Hager, Marcia Edmundson, Michael Brocki, and Michael Foley as Father, in THE OPEN HOUSE by Will Eno. Directed by Jeff Storer, at Manbites Dog Theater October 27 – November 12, 2016. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Manbites Dog Theater has staged works by Will Eno in the past, including the messily brilliant Oh, the Humanity (and other exclamations) in 2010, Middletown, and Thom Pain (based on nothing), all directed by Jeff Storer. Now Storer has staged Eno’s 2014 The Open House, directing a cast well known to him and to each other, in a play that puts some of Eno’s ideas about people and mortality into firmer form that his previous works.

In The Open House, an emotionally messed up white middle-class family is trying to have a nice day together. Or, some of them are trying; the other one is a chronic tyrant in a wheelchair. Father is a mean old bastard, casually but self-consciously cruel to his wife, son and daughter, and his brother, who lives with the family. It’s Father and Mother’s anniversary, and the grown children have come home, and nobody has any thing to say, or if they do, they don’t know how to say it, or they can’t say it, because they’ve lived a lifetime with Father’s verbal battering.

They are caught in amber. You can almost see it rising up around them, almost see it sucking at the bottoms of the son’s and daughter’s shoes as they escape to errands. Derrick Ivey’s design and Chuck Catotti’s lighting emphasize the dingy colorless stuckness of the family’s life, and the closed nature of their feedback loop.

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Hand to hand resuscitation in THE OPEN HOUSE. Marcia Edmundson, left, with J Evarts, finally has someone pay attention to her bad wrist. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

But change is coming: the wheels of life will turn; transformations will occur. (It is, after all, a play–Eno is not so relentless in reminding us of that in this script, but he keeps it stagey.) It would spoil matters to tell you about them.

I found The Open House very sad, although it has plenty of laugh lines and ridiculous moments. All these people in the same room, each alone and longing and incapable of taking action, it’s rather Beckettian.

Father, cold and controlling of those around him, literally cannot–a stroke (ah, Malign Fate) has crippled him. Michael Foley gives one of his finest performances ever. With Father nearly immobile in his wheelchair, Foley must do it all with voice, facial expression, timing and small gestures, usually with the newspaper he uses as a shield and a prod. He crackles with animosity, which makes his slide into confusion even more painful to watch.

Michael Brocki as Uncle also does very fine work here, especially later in the 85-minute one-act. Marcia Edmundson, as always, is a joy to watch. Although she uses many of the same behaviors for each role, I can never spy the actor behind the character on stage. The Son doesn’t provide as much scope for Matthew Hager–he’s good here, but it would be nice to see him in a bigger role. J Evarts makes every role a big one, and she’s a dervish in this one.

 

Manbites Dog is not a repertory company, but it might as well be. It’s a theatrical home to some wonderful actors and directors and designers, many of whom have worked together for three decades now to mine the human psyche and put its intricacy and simplicity before us through the words of playwrights they’ve pondered together. If there is ever to be a great pax humanitas, it may rise up from a theatre such as this, where the hard work of the humanities goes on late into the night, year after year.

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Michael Foley, left, and Matthew Hager, in THE OPEN HOUSE, by Will Eno. Directed by Jeff Storer. October 27 – November 12, 2016. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

 

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.

Redbird_image_less_text

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.

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