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. At Friday’s performance and reception, three of the four original cast members were present. Managing director Ed Hunt still has the reservation list for that first show: it includes Roy C. Dicks, who was then part of Raleigh Ensemble Players, and is now the News & Observer theatre critic.
This production is co-directed by Akiva Fox, of Haymaker, and Adam Sobsey — Sobsey was also in the house on that fateful first night. He was very young and found Seventy Scenes completely fascinating, its “radical structure” deeply appealing. Later, as he was learning to be a playwright himself, he directed some parts of it in college, and always wanted to put it on. More recently, he got his friends in the small theater company Haymaker to read it with him, and when they liked it, Sobsey approached Manbites Dog about featuring it this fall. Thus the Dog chases its tail.
So does the play. A youngish couple with severe communication issues talk at and over each other — mostly at high volume — as they watch TV, drink, and wait for trick-or-treaters on Halloween night. Some of their conversation is amusing, but there’s a lot of anger loose in the room. Another two characters appear, sometimes outside, sometimes in. They are doppelgangers of a sort, mirrors or ghostly shadows. Sometimes they seem to represent the couple’s better natures, other times they appear to be eruptions of their nasty sides. Each scene begins with its number being called out, so that we may fully appreciate the artfully random nature of the collage and doubt the possibility of linear order. Cause and effect are abandoned. Many of the scenes are very similar, with small shifts, or role reversals, so that cumulatively they foster doubt over certainty. Did this happen — or was it this? Seventy Scenes is rather like a Cage/Cunningham production in which the movement is unconnected to the music — they merely occur during the same time period. In this play, it is action and meaning that separate and go round and round each other.
My personal interest in this kind of structure is limited. I prefer the artist to make a definitive statement and supply an ending, even if ambiguous. Life certainly seems to be random, but I prefer art not to be. Seventy Scenes is of course not random — it explores permutations of possibility. I enjoy that idea immensely, but it makes for a long evening of snippets that do not converge into an arc. The characters remain strangers to us and to each other, and sad as it is, perhaps that is the point.
Seventy Scenes of Halloween continues at Manbites Dog Theater through Dec. 15. See our sidebar for details. MDT will celebrate its 25th birthday with a party in theatre on Dec. 16. See www.manbitesdogtheater.org for information.