LIFE SUCKS. Aaron Posner’s touchingly revised Chekhov at Manbites Dog Theater

5 - Vanya and others

Thaddaeus Edwards as Uncle Vanya, Rhetta Greene as Babs, and Jock Brocki as Dr. Aster, with Faye Goodwin as Sonia and Lakeisha Coffey as Pickles, in Manbites Dog’s new production of Aaron Posner’s LIFE SUCKS., through Nov. 11, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Although the first show of its Other Voices series took place last month, Manbites Dog Theater’s own final season has just begun, appropriately, with a contemporary re-make of Anton Chekhov’s great play, Uncle Vanya–Aaron Posner’s Life Sucks. (the period is part of the title). Does it or doesn’t it? Maybe only sometimes.

For instance, it totally sucks that this is the next-to-last production Jeff Storer will direct at the theater he and his partner Ed Hunt co-founded, and damnitall, it sucks to mourn this ending of theater in Durham as we have known if for 30 years before it even occurs. But it is a fine thing to go down laughing–which one does frequently during this deft and touching exploration of the longings and frustrations of a group of people who know each other well, if not as well as they thought they did.

As you may remember, the action in Uncle Vanya is precipitated by the arrival in the country of the professor, the titular owner of an estate he’s never worked, with his young second wife, and the intention of selling up to finance his city life. Such a sale would render the professor’s daughter and her uncle homeless. Posner retains this basic plot driver, and Storer renders it even more potent than usual due to the parallel with his theatrical home, which its board has decided will soon be sold, albeit for a better purpose—and this intention will not be reversed in the fourth act.

So we are sad; we are in a time of retrospection and elegy—but Posner’s having none of that. He’s mashed up Uncle Vanya with Billy Wilder’s hilarious 1959 film Some Like It Hot and if that doesn’t make you laugh, check your pulse. Storer’s staging is highly reminiscent of Wilder’s, with everyone chasing the object of his or her desire around in circles.

4 - Vanya and Ella

Ella (Jessica Flemming) listening to Vanya (Thaddaeus Allen Edwards) as he tries to explain himself–his real self–in hopes of winning her away from the Professor. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

The Marilyn Monroe role is played here by Jessica Flemming, as Ella, and it requires no effort to understand why she’s being pursued by all and sundry: She’s a dish. But she’s sticking with her man who wears glasses, even though he now provokes more pity and irritation than love in her. Flemming gives her character’s forthright rejection of various others’ impassioned propositions a winsome quality that keeps reminding the viewer that she’s much more than a pretty face.

Ella’s interactions with her husband may be lackluster, but the Professor, beautifully played by Michael Foley, still generates sparkle with the world-wise Babs. This is Rhetta Greene’s first Manbites appearance (in the midst of death we are in life) and I expect she will have quite a fan club by the end of the run. After a career on the New York stage, and in TV and film, and a nice long rest, she has begun to appear locally. If Jeff Storer ever allowed anyone to steal his shows, she would have done it. Her portrayal of Babs is fantastic–wry, unhurried, amused, warm–and she generates heat and light even in the cooly self-centered Professor.

Michael Foley–long a mainstay of the company, now in his final role for Manbites Dog–gives one of his finest performances. His speech on age and infirmity was note-perfect on preview night, and had me sobbing into my sleeve. He plays the Professor very low key, so the content of his speeches ambushes you, and ultimately he makes the Professor a more sympathetic character than you generally find in Uncle Vanya.

7 - Dr Aster and Vanya

The doctor (Jock Brocki) trying to get Vanya (Thaddaeus Allen Edwards) to buck up. Scenic design by Sonya Leigh Drum. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

The same could be said for this production’s Vanya–Thaddaeus Allen Edwards. Vanya’s still exasperating, but somehow more lovable. Sonya Leigh Drum’s wonderful set seems designed especially for Vanya’s moment of crisis, which takes place in a truncated row boat without oars. As Vanya contemplates suicide, all the characters he has played at Manbites seem to glide across the imaginary water, across the viewers’ minds’ eyes, as if it were our own lives possibly coming to an end. Vanya is of course rescued by his friend, Dr. Aster, played here by Jock Brocki with perhaps just a little much emphasis on the doctor’s stultifying ennui.

Certainly Sonia, who’s crazy in love with him, can’t pierce the doctor’s fog. Faye Goodwin handles Sonia beautifully, and is especially adept at the self-aware switches between the play’s interior and its turning outward to inform or harangue the audience directly. The scenes between her Sonia and the doctor give the production some of its broadest humor, and her blunt self-evaluations give it a painful poignancy. In Posner’s script, Chekhov’s character Waffles has been replaced by a female character, Pickles, and Goodwin makes Sonia’s introduction of Pickles very sweet.

1 - Pickles and Sonia

Sonia (Faye Goodwin), right, introducing Pickles (Lakeisha Coffey) to the audience of Life Sucks. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

In Pickles we see that Lakeisha Coffey has found her light as a stage actor. Partly this is due to the actual light provided by Chuck Catotti’s excellent design, but mainly is it because Coffey has matured (before our very eyes on the Manbites stage) into an actor who can go far beyond her known world, and take us with her. She is captivating here, and in command of a character very different from any we’ve seen her play. Although this is a small role, she leaves a deep memory imprint with it. The scene with the puppets (designed by Angela Spivey), with which Pickles tries to seduce the universally popular Ella, is unforgettable, and will go right up there with Coffey’s characterization of Ann Atwater (Best of Enemies) in her roll call of achievments.

The production’s design team also includes two other long-time Manbites contributors: Derrick Ivey, who did the costuming; and Shelby Hahn, who has provided a rather surprising, if unobtrusive, aural analogue to the action. All the design components mesh particularly well in this show, supporting the script, the acting and the wise and gentle direction. Contrary to what the title might lead you to think, this play and its production here make you feel better about almost everything. Rhetta Greene’s Babs has a lovely speech about saying her gratitudes every day, and Thaddaeus Edwards’ Vanya declares, with angst and joy, that all he wants is to love and be loved (cue Marilyn Monroe singing “I Just Want to Loved By You”). Taken together, these two speeches strike me as reflecting director Storer’s own values: this show seems like a statement of grace in an ungraceful world.

Given the size of the crowd at preview, and on opening night, advance ticket purchase is advisable.

2 - Babs and Professor

Rhetta Greene’s captivating Babs bringing out the sweetness in the pompous Professor (Michael Foley) in Aaron Posner’s LIFE SUCKS. The Manbites Dog Theater production, directed by Jeff Storer, runs through Nov. 11, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

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Our Super-Heroes, Now Working Magic at Manbites Dog Theater

Marcia Edmundson, Lakeisha Coffey, Thaddaeus Edwards, and Mary Guthrie as The Fathom Town Enforcers of SPIRITS TO ENFORCE, at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Marcia Edmundson, Lakeisha Coffey, Thaddaeus Edwards, and Mary Guthrie as The Fathom Town Enforcers, fundraising (or not) from their submarine lair, in SPIRITS TO ENFORCE,  now playing at Manbites Dog Theater. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

The play’s the thing in Mickle Maher’s smart, kind, complex investigation of The Tempest and theatre-making, which has just opened at Manbites Dog Theater, where it is marvelously directed by Jeff Storer.  Spirits To Enforce has levels beyond levels, but our super-heroes of the stage surmount all obstacles and overcome the dastardly evil-doers with the power their arts. It’s fine and funny and I suggest you see it while you may (through May 10). My proper review will run in next week’s Indy, but in the meantime, here are a few photos to consider. I’ll just add that this show offers the unusual opportunity to witness a second female interpretation this season of Prospero (following Julie Fishell’s intriguing version at PlayMakers). Marcia Edmundson doesn’t get to give all the lines, as she’s busy being a super-hero and a fundraiser, but she speaks enough of them to make one long to see her fully in the role. Spirits to Enforce is tantalizing that way, with all the characters.

 

Jon Haas as The Tune/Ferdinand and Jessica Flemming as Memory Lass/Miranda in the current Manbites Dog production of SPIRITS TO ENFORCE. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Jon Haas as The Tune/Ferdinand and Jessica Flemming as Memory Lass/Miranda in the current Manbites Dog production of SPIRITS TO ENFORCE. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Mary Michelle Guthrie as The Silhouette has a beautiful scene at play's end in Mickle Maher's SPIRITS TO ENFORCE, directed by Jeff Storer. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Mary Michelle Guthrie as The Silhouette has a beautiful scene at play’s end in Mickle Maher’s enchanting SPIRITS TO ENFORCE, directed by Jeff Storer. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

J Evarts, The Bad Map, aka Trinculo, exercises her talents in comic confusion in SPIRITS TO ENFORCE. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

J Evarts, The Bad Map, aka Trinculo, exercises her considerable talent at comic confusion in Manbites’ SPIRITS TO ENFORCE. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Cry If You Want To: Little Green Pig’s Knock-out CELEBRATION at Shadowbox

Photo: Alex Maness.

Thaddaeus Edwards as Gbatokai, in LGP’s CELEBRATION. Photo: Alex Maness.

When the lights came up in the Shadowbox, and the cast took its bow at the close of Celebration on February 7, the actors were met with enthusiastic applause. But after they filed off stage, no one moved for several minutes. The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern had nailed us to our seats with this excoriating production. Adapted for English-speaking theatre by David Eldridge from the 1998 Festen, an early Danish Dogme film directed by Thomas Vinterberg, Celebration is directed here by Kevin Ewert. With a combination of boldness and reserve he makes us doubt what we already know about the plot—gives us the denial already infecting the family—seducing us with the party set-up, then wallops us with the truth. It’s a tough show, but an extraordinary work of theatre.

There are worse things a father can do to his children than rape them repeatedly, but not many. In this story, the father doubled the damage by inflicting himself on his young twins, a boy and a girl. Now he’s turning 60, and the family has gathered to celebrate. All but one—the damaged girl twin, long since grown, has recently killed herself. The boy twin returns to Denmark, to the hotel his parents own and where the children grew up, with a pair of speeches in his pocket. As the eldest son, it will fall to him to make the first toast to his father.

Overlaid scenes in LGP's CELEBRATION. Photo: Alex Maness.

Overlaid scenes in LGP’s CELEBRATION. Photo: Alex Maness.

Jaybird O’Berski leads the outstanding cast of 15. As Christian, the abused son who has lost his twin, O’Berski’s trademark intensity is put to full use, and he exhibits a masterful control, especially in contrast to his brother Michael’s (Jeffrey Detwiler) invisibly crafted wild crudity. Tamara Kissane, who is often paired with Detwiler to great effect, is a knock-out here as Mette, Michael’s energetic wife, who gives as good as she gets in the marital wars. Mette wears blood-red lipstick, an unsettling note amid the carefully designed black, white and beige world of set and costumes (Kevin Ewert and Caitlin Wells), forebodingly lit by R.S. Buck.

Dana Marks gives another powerful performance as the remaining living sister, Helene. Like Kissane, she is fearless on stage, and continues to surprise with her range. She’s brought her new boyfriend (Thaddaeus Edwards) to the party, and his presence offers an excuse for a truly shocking outburst of racist song. Edwards has little to do, but he registers polite astonishment very well, and his what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-these-people look is priceless.

I had some quarrel with the directorial choice that made the personification of the father, Helge, very low-key. As played by Dan Oliver, Helge is almost completely without affect, and no match for son Christian in intensity. I would have preferred to see a glimpse of the brimstone lake below the placid exterior. Once only do we see his cruelty uncloaked, but his threats are weak. His fortress is his bland denial. It was a valid choice to play the character this way, but not, I think, the most powerful one possible.

Denial works much better for Helge’s wife Else, the mother of his children, because finally hers is splintered. Lenore Field gives a brilliant, riveting performance. In the final scene where she is isolated, though not banished, I could not take my eyes off of her motionless portrait of a woman whose forty years of married life has just turned to ash.

In addition to a powerful script, wonderful stagecraft and great acting by the leads and all the supporting cast, this show has something really special: the presence of a child. 5th grader Marleigh Purgar-McDonald has a natural approach and poise many an older actor might envy. Her interactions with her mother (Kissane) and her grandmother (Field) could not have been better. But it is the physical fact of her, a little girl, innocent and loving, that brings the horror of Helge’s past abuse of his own children into the clearest light. I don’t know how Purgar-McDonald is able to process the content of this play, but that she does suggests there may be a great actor in the making inside her. I intend to watch her grow at every opportunity.

This play is not an entertainment, and its content may be too hurtful for some. But it is one of the best works that The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern has produced, and highly recommended. The show runs Feb. 13-15 and 20-22. For reservations go to https://dime.io/events/celebration, or call 919.452.2304.

Photo: Alex Maness.

Marleigh Purgar-McDonald’s Little Girl keep a wary eye on Jay O’Berski’s Christian, while Dana Marks’ Helene reads the damning letter from the dead. Photo: Alex Maness.

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