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.

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.

 

 

Enter THE NETHER, at Manbites Dog

I’ve been trying to figure out, for four days now, what to say about The Nether, Jennifer Haley’s 2012 exploration of the intersection of physical and virtual realities, on stage at Manbites Dog Theatre through April 23. What to say, that is, beyond “Go see this, if you like to think.”

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Doyle (Michael Foley) faces tough questions from detective Morris (Caitlin Wells) about his activities In the virtual reality world of the Nether. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

The Nether takes place in the very near future, or possibly the present; the nether is a more highly realized version of what we now call the internet, and its seductively programmed fantasy realms are somewhat subject to regulation and control by a shadowy branch of government. The play’s concerns are moral and ethical quandaries associated with human desires, couched in a suspenseful police-procedural format. Detective Morris (Caitlin Wells) suspects Sims (Michael Brocki) of running a fancy child prostitution racket in his nostalgically detailed virtual realm, in which he is Papa. Visitors log on to the Nether, and once vetted, pay to enter Papa’s world and take up a role there. The attraction, besides comfort, anonymity and lush surroundings, is Iris, a very young girl (the remarkable Marleigh Purgar-McDonald). You can do anything to Iris—she’s virtual—and she’ll regenerate.

Detective Morris, however, believes real harm is being done, and she’s out to stop it. If she can’t crack Sims, she’ll go for a user, and make him her tool, dragging Doyle (Michael Foley) into her office again and again until he gives her enough information that she can send agent Woodnut (Lazarus Simmons) into Papa’s pretty world undercover.

Is harm done by the manipulation of images or by role playing online? (And delicious it is that a play should ask, especially in a production featuring one actor working under an alias, and another who’s previously been willing to take her clothes off on stage, but not to have her performance photograph put online.) If so, where is it done, and how? Could it be wrong to imagine oneself into a world that matches one’s interior vision of delight? You can see how these questions relate not only to child pornography, but many transgressive behaviors; and to any created “world,” whether online, in an art form, or even entirely within one’s head. Haley also worries at the question of whether there can be any satisfaction (for the real human) taken in performing (virtual) actions without consequence–and questions that lack of consequence. These are just the beginnings of the philosophic mazes into which the play leads.

Jules Odendahl-James directs with marvelous restraint, eschewing histrionics in favor of a cool clarity that makes the unfolding story, with its many twists, continually surprising. It would be easy to make this play too racy, or too earnest—either way, dismiss-able—but Odendahl-James makes the longings real, the logic inexorable, and the result profoundly moving. Each character’s point of view is so compelling, and the acting is so sympathy-inducing as the individual stories unfold, that one must constantly revise one’s response. Michael Foley as Doyle was particularly fine in the Sunday matinee performance. Marleigh Purgar-McDonald, a 7th grader, has to be seen to be believed. Hers is a delicate, difficult role as Iris, and her combination of innocence and sang-froid was quite unnerving.

The bifurcated world of the play is well expressed in Sonya Leigh Drum’s set, Austin F. Powers’ very good lighting, and Joseph Amodei’s sound design, and the characters are tellingly and interestingly dressed by Ashley Nicholl Owen. Altogether, this is a completely satisfying production. This is the kind of ambiguousness that all art should aspire to—not confusion, obfuscation or coyness, but an ambiguousness that allows for the difficulty of knowing or doing the “right” thing, and the uncertainty of all judgment in the face of the desire for love.

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In the virtual reality of the Nether, Iris (Marleigh Purgar-McDonald) teaches a new game to Woodnut (Lazarus Simmons). Photo: Alan Dehmer.

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