Stars, Satellites and the Ferris Wheel of Love: BRIGHT HALF LIFE, at Manbites


Women in love: JoRose (Vicky) and Tamara Kissane (Erica), in Tanya Barfield’s BRIGHT HALF LIFE, as directed by Jules Odendahl-James. At Manbites Dog Theater through March 4, 2017. Photo: Alex Maness.

Manbites Dog Theater opened a delightfully challenging and touchingly intimate recent play on February 17.  Tanya Barfield‘s Bright Half Life, which sketches nearly 50 years of love between Vicky and Erica, was first produced in 2015; this is the regional premiere. The poetic script is directed with delicately applied force by Jules Odendahl-James, who knows just when to slow down for the script’s switchbacks, and when to power out of its curves. She and the two actors, Tamara Kissane and JoRose, have made a beautiful piece of theatre.

Vicky and Erica’s story dances through time, the many short vignettes taking increased meaning through added context, like a jigsaw puzzle coming together. Certain scenes or lines repeat, with tiny variations, like all those pieces of blue sky. Essential differences in the Vicky’s and Erica’s personalities and characters are wonderfully conveyed through metaphors and astronomical references, but the practical differences in their situations play out bluntly. Kissane and JoRose ride the  waveforms and cycles of long-time love with breathtaking honesty.

Even though many of the “actions” in this 75 minute work “take place” in varied locales, watching Erica and Vicky talk and remember and have adventures and break up and get married and have fights and have children and break up and rediscover and get divorced and remember again the electric love and realize that the half-life of their star still shines and that the jumping out of airplanes and the flying of kites and and the riding of Ferris wheels are still theirs forever– all that makes it feel much more as if it takes place in a silk and velvet boudoir. One almost feels a voyeur, a secret watcher, of the very private lives of these vividly imagined women. The deliciously bifurcated experience of a play–losing oneself in it/being aware of its separateness from one–is intensified by the same dynamic playing out in these lovers’ lives, underscoring that the erotic energies which drive the love engine are very similar to those that drive artful performance.

The essential duality of a couple in love was nicely echoed in the effective set design by Sonya Leigh Drum. Using no more than a raised platform with a ramp on one end, steps in the middle and an L on the other end, along with a lot of small lamps, she made a place set apart, the women’s private terrain–yet an arrangement flexible enough to be used for office work, mattress testing, skydiving and all the rest of life. Drum also designed the costumes. Joseph Amodei’s sound mix was, on opening night, kept to such low levels that perhaps it would have been better turned off, but this may have been an attempt to further deepen the feeling of intimacy, and an effort not to drown the women, who sometimes spoke very softly. Jenni Mann Becker’s lighting goes over-bright at times, but generally is very effective at amplifying the emotional tones of the various scenes–which means it changes often, enriching the visuals.

This is a rather special production, very tightly put together, with particularly fine acting. Kissane is luminous; JoRose, radiant. Highly recommended. Through March 4.


JoRose as Vicky, and Tamara Kissane as Erica, in Tanya Barfield’s BRIGHT HALF LIFE, playing at Manbites Dog Theater through March 4, 2017. Photo: Alex Maness.



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.


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.


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.



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.


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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