Ivey on Ice Skates, and Other Pleasures in THE HOMOSEXUALS at Manbites

UPDATE: DUE TO POPULAR DEMAND, THE RUN OF THIS SHOW HAS BEEN EXTENDED THROUGH MAY 25. PLAYWRIGHT PHILIP DAWKINS WILL BE PRESENT FOR A POST-SHOW CONVERSATION WITH DIRECTOR JEFF STORER ON FRIDAY, MAY 25.

The play that’s running through May 18, closing out Manbites Dog Theater‘s jubilant 25th season, may be the very best I’ve seen in all their years. A script without a false note, The Homosexuals provides opportunity for extraordinary ensemble acting by several of the Triangle’s most consistently fine actors, under the direction of Jeff Storer, MDT’s co-founder and professor in Duke’s Theater Studies program. Philip Dawkins’ bright 2011 play has a moving story, with likable characters who engage in delicious dialogue during believable situations as they all search for love and happiness. And, it is all about being “gay, gay, GAY!”

Evan (Ryan Brock) and British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) meet to discuss real estate and other important things. Photo: Alan Dehmer

Evan (Ryan Brock) and British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) meet to discuss real estate and other important things. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

The first three contenders for best-ever at Manbites that sprang to mind were The Vanishing Point, from 2007; God’s Ear, from 2010; and The Brothers Size, from 2012. Jeff Storer directed two of these (Joseph Megel the third) but Derrick Ivey–who is fabulous, darling, as theatre director Peter in The Homosexuals–had something to do with the excellence of each of the earlier three, through lead roles and/or set design. He’s crucial here, though inseparable from the rest of the ensemble.

The multi-talented Ivey also designed costumes and the versatile set for The Homosexuals, in which the action moves backwards in time. Simple pieces are rearranged as needed for the scenes–the same objects can become beds or sofas or benches–and behind them in a dimly lit arc against the back wall wait the props and actors of the future scenes, scenes have already occurred and that form part of the collective memory for the friends we’re watching on stage at the moment. Ranged behind, out of reach of fear and struggle and joy, the characters off stage observe their past unfold with attentive tenderness. Our observation of their observation tinges the fresh immediacy of the situations with a poignant hue: This is a lovely stage device to augment to lovely, transparent acting.

The first scene opens with Evan (Ryan Brock, pictured left, above) waiting for Peter (Derrick Ivey) at a skating rink. Watching the upright Ivey, who usually does not flail around on stage, make his entrance on ice skates, flamboyant and teetering, is alone worth the ticket price. But everything after that is even better.

The year is 2010, a decade after the young Evan arrived in the big city. He left in the hinterlands a family who couldn’t love him when he came out as gay. He arrived, like so many before him, scared, confused, hurt, poor, and ready for the big adventure. Ryan Brock could have been built for this role. He’s ridiculously good-looking (and still young enough to look very young) with eyes that could melt an iceberg, and he doesn’t waste any energy on pointless moment, saving it for real action.  Almost in a daze upon his arrival, Evan goes to a candy store (!) and meets Michael (beautifully played by Jeffrey Moore), a really nice guy who invites him to a party, where he meets the close circle of friends who become his friends immediately. Except for Tam (Amber Wood, tough, wise-assed and affectionate), who marries British Mark so he can get a green card (Thaddaeus Edwards, impeccable whether his trousers are on or off), it’s a circle of men, gay men. Sometimes and for a while they may be lovers, but they are always friends–to such a degree that they constitute a family.

But we get all that gradually, through the six scenes, each centered on Evan’s interactions with a different friend, and each taking us back two years, until we arrive at the fateful party in 2000, when Evan meets everyone, and we get a glimpse of what drove him away from his former home. In addition to those mentioned above, the group includes Mark (Gregor McElvogue, charming, eloquent, irascible and a little daunting) and Collin (Chris Burner, very funny and endearing). We learn something of everyone’s struggles and adventures, especially in love and lust, and while we don’t watch them grow into the kind honest humans they become, we do get to see how they got that way. Damned if it isn’t about enough to renew faith in humanity. Plus, there are a lot of fine physiques on view.

At the party: British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) and Collin (Chris Burner) dish with Tam (Amber Wood). Photo: Alan Dehmer.

At the party: British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) and Collin (Chris Burner) dish with Tam (Amber Wood). Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Artists turn on the power at Manbites for THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM

It is always a special treat to see theater work made by talented, skilled artists who have generated their synergy not in just this production, but in many plays over years, even decades. In the current show at Manbites Dog Theater, director Jeff Storer leads a dream cast of well-known and much-admired area actors in Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom (2005). It’s an ideal play for Storer: It requires a tight ensemble of actors; it is built more on storytelling than action; it explores dark reaches of the heart, and is not in a hurry about it. It has a moral, but doesn’t beat you up with it—both writer and director seem content that it catch up with you later, maybe one day when you are about to shut the door on love.

Katja Hill, Marcia Edmundson, and Derrick Ivey in The New Electric Ballroom at MDT. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Katja Hill, Marcia Edmundson, and Derrick Ivey in The New Electric Ballroom at MDT. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Marcia Edmundson, Lenore Field, and Katja Hill, as three sisters endlessly replaying their old memory-tapes and trying to keep safe from love, are more than capable of working in Walsh’s terrain of amazing language that mixes naturalism and symbology. Derrick Ivey, as the fishmonger Patsy, makes his poetic lines tumble naturally from the shy man’s mouth, and easily carries the responsibility of offering warmth and life to the sisters’ cold house. Storer, in his usual deft manner, balances the bleak with the tender, and coaxes his actors into to opening the characters’ sad, barren hearts to reveal their self-made comic tragedies and blighted longings. In 85 minutes, they lay out the proofs that risk + courage may or may not = love, but love – (risk + courage) is a null set.

You may think at first that you will not connect with these characters—Ada, Breda, Clara, and Patsy—because they don’t connect well with each other, but you do. As Breda and Clara begin to repeat their interlocking stories of their fateful night years ago at The New Electric Ballroom, they seem repellent, purposefully self-destructive. Soon you perceive that they are mired, stuck in a deep scratch in life’s record, and you begin to care for them, though it is a big relief when sweet Patsy shows up with his day’s load of fish and gossip, to relieve the miasma of feminine bitterness.

Derrick Ivey and Lenore Field at Manbites Dog. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Derrick Ivey and Lenore Field. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Although the play is ultimately very sad, it is studded with comic moments. Katja Hill as Ada doesn’t get any of the flashier ones—hers is a very quiet and nuanced performance, depending a great deal on body language. But Edmundson as Breda and Field as Clara get to exercise their considerable talents for drollery throughout. Derrick Ivey is, as usual, entirely believable no matter what he is doing. He also had the audience hooting with laughter at several points, not least during the bathing scene. The multi-talented Mr. Ivey also designed the sets and costumes, which, also as usual, make the most out of very little. (How does he do it? He is also directing the forthcoming Durham Savoyards production of Pirates of Penzance, opening March 14 at the Carolina Theatre.)

The New Electric Ballroom runs through March 9. It’s a fine script, and a wonderful opportunity to see several of the Triangle’s best at play. Tickets through www.manbitesdogtheater.org. You may also want to pick up tickets for the next show there, Little Green Pig’s Derklöwnschpankeneffekt: Two Plays for Klöwn, directed by the Hon. Michael O’Foghludha (who was dramaturg and dialect coach for Ballroom) and starring our favorite bad boys, Jay O’Berski, Jeffrey Detwiler and Carl Martin, who also have that long-time synergy thing going on. It opens March 21.

Clara (Lenore Field) and the teacake, in The New Electric Ballroom at MDT. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Clara (Lenore Field) and the teacake, in The New Electric Ballroom. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

3 plays–from hell to angels–continuing this weekend

Dorothy Lyman as Violet on the set of August, Osage County. HSN | TR

Dorothy Lyman as Violet on the set of August, Osage County. Photo: HSN | TR

In Raleigh, an impressive production of August, Osage County by Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh.

Under the intelligent, well-timed direction of Eric Woodall, August: Osage County examines three generations of an extended family at a time of particular crisis, even for them. Osage County stretches north and west from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the Kansas line, and is the kind of place on the plains where people find either contentment or the overwhelming urge to be somewhere else. The

Dorothy Lyman with cast of August, Osage County. HSN | TR.

Dorothy Lyman with cast of August, Osage County. Photo: HSN | TR.

family’s story is introduced by the patriarch, Beverly Weston (Phil Crone), as he interviews a young woman to live in and help around the house. He explains the situation: he drinks; his wife takes pills. One doesn’t cause the other, he says, it is just how it is, and they don’t interfere with each other’s habits. The habits, however, are detrimental to orderly housekeeping.

Read the my full review on CVNC. The show, in the lovely Fletcher Opera Theater, closes Dec. 9.

In Durham, at my hometown art house, troublesome weirdness acted with verve:

Candy Korn plays a role in Manbites Seventy Scenes of Halloween. Photo: MDT.

Candy Korn plays a role in Manbites’ Seventy Scenes of Halloween. Photo: MDT.

Seventy Scenes of Halloween, a mutable play by Jeffrey M. Jones, was the initial show presented by Manbites Dog Theater in the days of its bold youth, 1987, in its first awkward space at 343 West Main Street in Durham. It’s an unsettling series of short scenes that may be put together in any order the director desires, but no matter how it’s ordered, it’s not a play you can pigeonhole — making it an excellent introduction for the new, oddly named company. No one, of course, had any expectation that 25 years later Manbites would have its own building and be celebrating an unbroken quarter-century of weird and wonderful new plays. These have been years of huge change in Durham, but this funky little theater (that makes the eagle grin on every dollar it can get) has provided continuity, and community, along with the challenging art.

Read my full review on CVNC. Show closes Dec. 15.

And in Chapel Hill, a delightful, high production value version of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.  This review was first published Dec. 4 in The Indyweek, appearing in print with the headline “Season’s greetings and hellish holidays.”

Todd Lawson and Katja Hill in PlayMakers Repertory Company production of It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio PlayPhoto: Jon Gardiner

Todd Lawson and Katja Hill  at Radio Station WPRC, in the PlayMakers Repertory Company holiday  production of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Photo: Jon Gardiner

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Ray Dooley in PlayMakers Repertory Company production of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Photo: Jon Gardiner

The onslaught of holiday plays and concerts is upon us, and the roster includes many regular favorites (or yawners, depending), but this year PlayMakers Repertory Company offers an old favorite in a charming new guise. It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1947 Frank Capra film with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, for all its many merits and despite its condemnation of capitalist greed, is awash in sentimentality. This adaptation by Joe Landry is not. Sure, there’s some, but just a dusting atop a layer cake of real feeling. I went in expecting to be entertained and came away nourished.

Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play segues smoothly from the introductory “radio play” section with the five actors “reading” the many parts behind microphones, into a very active stage play in which the actors convert the few chairs and props into whatever’s needed. Along with composer/ musician Mark Lewis on piano, the cast also provides sound effects. Seeing how they make them in no way lessens their impact, even while the sight reminds us of the artfulness of what we experience. The play and this particular staging are unusually effective at exposing the artifice underpinning the theatrical experience without diminishing its magic.

Brandon Garegnani as the Angel Clarence, and Todd Lawson as George Bailey, in PlayMakers Repertory Company production of It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Photo: Jon Gardiner

Brandon Garegnani as the Angel Clarence, and Todd Lawson as George Bailey, in PRC’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Photo: Jon Gardiner

McKay Coble’s wonderful set for WPRC/ Bedford Falls is as much a character as any other, and Burke Brown’s lighting brings its many aspects to life. Todd Lawson, making his first PlayMakers appearance, is very moving as George Bailey, while MFA students Brandon Garegnani and Maren Searle give delightful performances as the angel Clarence and the lovely Mary Bailey, respectively. Durham actress Katja Hill shows her impressive range in several parts, from the child ZuZu to the vamping Violet. Ray Dooley also takes on many roles, including the mean old Mr. Potter, but as the radio announcer, he’s bright as brilliantine. This show’s highly recommended if you need to recharge your belief that yes, in spite of everything, it is a wonderful life.

The show runs through Dec. 16.

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