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.

Sing, Play, Dance: A Few Previews as Merry May Skips In

She'll grab you by the heartstrings. Iris Dement, appearing at the ArtsCenter May 2.

She’ll grab you by the heartstrings and sing you back home. Iris Dement, appearing at the ArtsCenter May 2.

One of my all-time favorite songbirds will be singing tonight from the small stage at the Carrboro ArtsCenter: the wonderful Iris DeMent.  What a songwriter! What a storyteller! What a compelling voice! When DeMent’s first album, Infamous Angel, appeared in 1992, I could hardly play anything else for months. She makes me feel home. Not necessarily comfortable or happy (“Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Ev’ry Day”), but home. Other great records of wise poetry and fine playing joined it–but until last fall, it had been sixteen years since a new Iris album came out. It’s called Sing the Delta. Hallelujah, y’all. When she came to the Cat’s Cradle years ago, I saw practically everyone I knew there, pressing close to the stage. It will be nearly as intimate in the ArtsCenter, with the advantage of actual seats. Show’s at 8. See you there.

Roger McGuinn, guitar man.

Roger McGuinn, guitar man.

Thursday is just the beginning. The ArtsCenter, now led by the highly music-knowledgeable Art Menius, has announced a really incredible roster of concerts–many kinds of American music–for the forthcoming year. Friday, May 3 brings another legend–Roger McGuinn. This is the man whose sparkling 12-string and musical verve lit up the 1960s and beyond. He was one of the founders of the Byrds.  Need I say more? Maybe just three words: “Mr. Tambourine Man.” McGuinn has not slowed down, but he has turned back towards his folk roots. If you were, perhaps, born too late to know him from the first wave, check out his recordings of numerous songs here  (listen for free). Should be a great concert.

But wait, there’s more–it’s a one-two-three punch. Not the Byrds, but The Stray Birds, a charming singer-songwriter trio from southern Pennsylvania, will play the ArtsCenter on Saturday, May 4. The musicians of this young band were steeped in music from infancy–Appalachian mountain music, classical, and (for them) classic Americana. Lead singer (guitar, fiddle, banjo) Maya De Vitry grew up singing along with Iris DeMent in the family car, and you can hear it in her words, and the spaciousness she gives them. De Vitry’s voice is smoother, more golden, than DeMent’s, but no less honest. Band mate Oliver Craven (guitar, fiddle) wrote half the songs on their fine, self-produced CD, and he and Charles Muench (bass, banjo) create beautiful harmonies with De Vitry. NPR named their album one of the best of 2012, and I totally agree. Smart songs, lovely sounds, great energy. Really great energy: “I like surprising people with music,” De Vitry told me in a phone interview. Explains why the now 22-year-old was successful busking her way around North America and Europe. Prepare to be happily surprised on Saturday night.

American troubadours, The Stray Birds, will play May 4 in the Paris of the Piedmont.

American troubadours, The Stray Birds, will play May 4 in the Paris of the Piedmont.

However, if you just can’t take your nouvelle old-time music sitting down, choose option B.

The Five Points Rounders.

The Five Points Rounders.

Local favorites, The Five Points Rounders will be playing one of their Rowdy Square Dances, this time at  Nightlight Bar & Club near the Chapel Hill/Carrboro line. Warning: this is not your mama’s square dancing. Too much fun, and you can buy beer.

I’ll be missing Roger McGuinn on Friday, because I will not miss the opening of the final show in Manbites Dog Theater‘s great 25th season. Ed Hunt and Jeff Storer changed the theatrical landscape in Durham and the Triangle when they created their theater, and here’s a play to demonstrate how far we’ve all come. At the beginning, MDT did a lot of “issue” plays about gay identity, AIDS, discrimination and so on–all good–but now they can make plays about people, not symbols.

The super-cast of THE HOMOSEXUALS, lounging at the Durham bar, Whiskey. Photo: Paul Davis.

The super-cast (including Gregor McElvogue cuddling with the ever-impressive Derrick Ivey) of THE HOMOSEXUALS, lounging at the Durham bar, Whiskey. Photo: Paul Davis.

As Jeff Storer says: “In the early days we did queer theater because our friends were dying and it was a way to tell the stories and raise awareness about our responsibilities as a society. A play like THE HOMOSEXUALS is political by virtue of its title. But it is not an issue play. It’s about FAMILY. About finding a family and a home when the one you were born into disapproves. The play is sexy and playful and It’s about change and loving friends. It’s about the “here and now.””

Storer, a master at coaxing maximun humanity from actor ensembles, directs this recent play by Philip Dawkins. He’s got a dream cast of several of this area’s finest actors. The show will run through May 18. Tickets on the website. Don’t let this one slip by.

Also in Durham, and just a block away, something entirely different. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presents The Wooster Group’s Diary of Anne Frank at The Shadowbox. This experimental production of an experimental work that never happened, in a new experimental performance space, is directed by Jay O’Berski. It could be a steaming mess; it could be brilliant. Probably both. Guaranteed that LGP will take you for a wild ride. Opened May 1, runs through May 18. Tickets: tickets@littlegreenpig.com  or 919.452.9204.

Turn Out for Turn About: BROADWAY TWISTED at Local 506, one night only, 4/15

“We have the medical and public health tools we need to halt the HIV epidemic and enable people living with HIV to live relatively healthy lives. What we need now is the political will and community commitment to make sure every North Carolinian living with or at risk for HIV has the information, support, and healthcare they need.”

— Claire Hermann, NC AIDS Action Network
Undergrads from UNC's Dept. of Dramatic Art rehearse for Broadway Twisted, 4/8/2013.

Undergrads from UNC’s Dept. of Dramatic Art rehearse for BROADWAY TWISTED.

I know, I know, the causes and projects vying for your attention and cash are just overwhelming. But once in a while, somebody cooks up a fundraiser so good-humored and good-hearted that it revives a spirit drained by the continual supplication of Good Causes. Broadway Twisted, coming up Monday, April 15 in Chapel Hill’s Local 506, is such a one. For a mere $10 donation, you can enjoy an evening of show tunes sung by a cadre of actors singing across the gender divide–and your money will go to the NC AIDS Action Network, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The concert will showcase some high-class singing and carrying on, but what makes it great is that it showcases people at their best. Giving their time and talent, men and women from the theater community are joining forces to do something about a problem it is easy to lose sight of if you are not, for instance, one of the tens of thousands of people in North Carolina who are living with HIV.

Broadway Twisted is the brainchild of Nathaniel P. Claridad, an MFA student in the UNC Professional Actor Training Program, and pretty boy Bobby in the current PlayMakers Rep production of Cabaret. PRC/Cabaret, along with Manbites Dog Theater and its upcoming production, The Homosexuals, are the official presenters, with Tim Scales and his company Wagon Wheel Arts Promotion donating production assistance. Claridad will direct the concert, and PlayMakers’ affable associate artistic director Jeffrey Meanza will emcee.

Taylor Mac, right, in PRC's Cabaret. Josh Tobin as the Gorilla. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Taylor Mac, right, in PRC’s Cabaret. Josh Tobin as the Gorilla. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

The biggest draw is Cabaret’s Emcee, the New York performance artist and Obie Award-winner Taylor Mac.  One wonders what gender-swapping may mean in his case. Lisa Brescia, the powerful Broadway singer currently in the Sally Bowles role in Cabaret will also appear, along with the show’s excellent music director and band leader Mark Hartman. Local community favorites include Julie Fishell and Ray Dooley, PRC members also in Cabaret. (All these people are performing gratis on their one night off.) Will Ray sweep in wearing his Lady Bracknell dress, or may we hope for something scantier?

Doors open at 7:30, Broadway Twisted starts at 8, and will run about 90 minutes. (Due to NC Liquor Laws, membership is required to attend shows at Local 506. Memberships are $3 and available at the door on the night of the performance.) Tickets $10 at the door, or at http://www.local506.com. You can spend your extra cash on raffle items. It’s for a good cause.

“36,500 people are living with HIV in North Carolina. One in five don’t know their status. Treatment can reduce transmission by up to 96% according to a recent UNC study, but only 30% of people diagnosed with HIV in NC are getting the care they need to be virally suppressed. “

— Claire Hermann, NC AIDS Action Network

The NC AIDS Action Network (NCAAN) is North Carolina’s only statewide advocacy organization dedicated to fighting for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, their loved ones, and those at risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS in North Carolina. NCAAN and our thousands of Action Team members advocate for sound policies that improve access to care and prevent new cases of HIV, educate the public about HIV/AIDS related issues, challenge stigma, and strengthen our statewide community of advocates living with HIV/AIDS and allies. www.ncaan.org

Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) is one of the nation’s leading industry-based, nonprofit AIDS fundraising and grant-making organizations. By drawing upon the talents, resources and generosity of the American theatre community, since 1988 BC/EFA has raised more than $225 million for essential services for people with AIDS and other critical illnesses across the United States. BC/EFA awards annual grants to more than 450 AIDS and family service organizations nationwide and is the major supporter of the social service programs at The Actors Fund, including the HIV/AIDS Initiative, the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative, the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic, The Dancers’ Resource and the Stage Managers’ Project. www.broadwaycares.org

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