What happens when two of the Bull City’s most intense and inventive theater companies shack up? Well, maybe you can imagine that part, but what of their offspring? Is it monster or prodigy, a mutant stagestruck idjit or a futuristic dreamchild rummaging among the past?
The mating of Manbites Dog Theater with the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern for Fistful of Love has produced a love child with all those qualities. Billed as an erotic musical, it is more a musical long-form poem about eroticism, love, loneliness, trust, and commitment. It walks; it talks (and talks some more); its sings; it dances; it gets in and out of the hot tub; and with a little help from Apollo and Athena, it portrays the mythic and timeless struggle between men and women as a bloody war in which a few battles may end in happy détente. It is very, very funny. It also features a beautiful, delicate, melancholy performance by Tom Marriott that remains etched on the heart after the amusements have faded.
The production is a very 21st century thing. The playwright is — sort of — the prolific Charles L. Mee, who has put his scripts online as collage material for other artists, such as Jay O’Berski. The protean O’Berski, who is both artistic director of Little Green Pig and associate artistic director of Manbites Dog (and teaches at Duke University in his spare time), has based Fistful of Love on Mee’s plays Big Love and True Love, and mashed in bits from several of his other works, along with snippets from Virginia Woolf and Charles Bukowski (You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense), and added to this stew a big dollop of song-spice and garnished it with the boy-band Smooth Overload in preposterous 1970s tuxedos. (You do not want to miss Lamont “Smoove Love” Reed playing air trumpet, or sitting on a carousel rooster, all angel-faced and big-haired, to croon a nasty rap.) As with many of the projects by O’Berski and friends, this one includes a video component (by assistant director Jim Haverkamp) and recorded sound as well as live music made onstage in a cleverly conceived, well-constructed, and well-lit set (conveniently dotted with microphones to accommodate the outbursts of song).
The entire cast is excellent; but what makes the play more than a mere entertainment is the pivotal role of Hank, played by Tom Marriott. Worn, dirty, scruffy, swilling from a wine bottle, adding fresh stains to his ragged undershirt, Hank is a mournful writer, his ghostly presence unremarked by the love-strugglers. Only the damaged and equally lonely Giuliana (Elizabeth Phillips) sees him or speaks to him. Stripped of any histrionics, Hank’s speeches seem not so much restrained as worn thin by time. You lean forward to catch the soft draughts of bitter wisdom; you huddle over your own heart at the tones of his slurred sad song. I’ve seen Marriott do a lot of fine work over the decades, including the title role in King Lear, but this may be his best performance.
Also outstanding, as Olympio, was Lucius Robinson, who excels in physical humor, and who seemed to be channeling the young Tom Marriott in looks and nuance of expression. LaMark Wright and Rajeev Rajendran were knockouts as his brothers Lydio and Thyon, while Monica Byrne, Lormarev Jones, and Dana Marks were both ferocious and sweetly silly as their cousins to whom the men had been promised as grooms.
Jane Holding was lovely as Piera, who tries to broker a compromise between the fleeing men and the pursuing women. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which she lounges back reading Virginia Woolf while fully rigged-out as Annie Hall. The cherries on top of this messy sundae were Ron Quander as Apollo and Donnis Collins as Athena. You have not lived until you have seen Collins in silver knee boots and very little else, with snail-like whorls of hair encircling her ears, come down from Olympus (or possibly Mars) to spread oil on the troubled waters of love.
I found the play’s ending unsatisfactory — too drawn-out and indefinite — but otherwise this is a fine theatrical romp (though if you don’t like sex talk, you might not think so). It also marks the beginning of Little Green Pig’s 2008-09 Greek Season. Unlike the little pink pigs, who are all ending their seasons now, the Little Green Pig is revving up for a fresh spin to get us through the summer. In July, they’ll be Goin’ A Buffalo; meanwhile, Fistful of Love runs through May 31st at Manbites Dog Theater.
Manbites Dog Theater and the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern present Fistful of Love Thursday-Saturday, May 22-24, at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday, May 25, at 3:15 p.m.; and Thursday-Saturday, May 29-31, at 8:15 p.m. at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina 27701. $12 Thursday and $17 Friday-Sunday, except $8 Student Rush Tickets with ID (door sales only). 919/682-3343 or http://manbitesdogtheater.tix.com. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern: http://littlegreenpig.com. Charles L. Mee: http://charlesmee.com/indexf.html.