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Manbites Dog Theater’s set, at this precise minute, is a total wreck. Those who saw it Saturday night can attest to the fact. It is knee deep in junk, combustibles, archaic mechanical artifacts, and various dead animals. But don’t worry; it’s by design. What we were seeing is the unbelievable set of the newest work by Both Hands Theatre Company, Exactly What T(w)o Do, the brainchild of the company’s co-founders, Cheryl Chamblee and Tamara Kissane. The pair, as is their wont, wrote, directed, produced and, this time, even performed this stunner of a script. In a dazzling array of wordplay, doublespeak, hit-and-run tactics, and hilarious antics, the duo gives us their own unique take on the old saw, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” while also taking a good hard look at what that four-letter word, “ugly,” actually entails.
The set, the very first thing of many that—almost literally—hit us, is so ugly it’s beautiful. It is what you might find if you ventured into an old, abandoned house whose inhabitants left it, years ago, without bothering to clean it up. That is, of course, if said inhabitants were two young women who lived, quite precariously, on the very edge of their respective sanities. Said accoutrements include a suit of bronze armor; a hugely oversized ear; an aluminum trashcan; the biggest stereo ever built; a six-foot-long stuffed (as in toy) catfish; and a well-out-of-date, black-and-white (and still working!) home reel-to-reel movie projector. These are merely the largest items in the room; they are not by any means anything more than representative. This set includes literally hundreds of set and prop pieces, carefully designed and selected even before the actual script was written. Set designers Derrick Ivey, Eddy Shipman, and Lance Waycaster are responsible for this marvel; and it is so exactly perfect for this script that creating it first makes perfect sense.
Now having the “world” in which these two characters once lived, the script itself may have come a little bit easier. But that by no means can be interpreted as “easy.” Bits of text revealed at the first production meeting become page after page of dialogue that is shot at us in a staccato, rapid-fire, and often-deadly spray. These characters oftentimes overlap their speech and continuously complete each other’s sentences. Peanut (Tamara Kissane) and Earthworm (Cheryl Chamblee) have a love-hate relationship. It is clear, from the telephone conversation that first brings them here together, that these two are suspicious, acerbic, and volatile with each other. It is also clear that they know each other better than any two people have a right to.
Although neither of these two characters is a fashion model, neither are they unattractive. But they both feel unattractive. In fact, they feel downright ugly, inside and out. Part of the reason why is that they used to—for they continue to—tell each other they are. Both are verbally abusive. Peanut, she reveals herself, is also physically abusive. She reminds Earthworm that she has hurt her in the past; and “if you make me,” she will hurt her again. Further, she is self-abusive. She hits herself during the show and is covered in bandages and bruises. Yet she immediately comes to her roommate’s aid when Earthworm gets herself into a precarious position she cannot get out of. It is evident that they have a true caring for each other, but the angry parting of the ways that ended their relationship years ago still hurts.
So, even though they have come here to clean up the house, they do just about everything except clean. Earthworm was probably nicknamed such by her roomie because she kept (and it’s still here) a jar of real earthworms in the house, which by all indications, she loves dearly. Peanut probably got her nickname from her roomie because she loves eating peanuts, to the point that she counts them and refuses to share.
This is a deep and very subtle script. It is also hilariously funny. It is further bettered by an original soundtrack, performed live by sound designer and guitarist Adam Sampieri. There are layers and layers to this play, and these two seem to touch on each and every one. With a set that must be a complete nightmare to reset every night, and a script that is at times difficult to keep up with, this play is complex, unique, and seemingly so unscripted that we are amazed when these two are finally able to reach an understanding. That they can, in such a hurtful and perplexing encounter after so long, seems almost untenable. But they finally come to understand—and we do, too—that they must. It is the only way to close this painful part of their lives. They need each other.
This singular play is having its world premiere in Durham, as a part of Manbites Dog’s Other Voices Series. Both Hands Theatre Company, like very few others in the Triangle, produces only original works. You have never seen a show like this before. And if you miss it, you probably never will.
Both Hands Theatre Company presents Exactly What T(w)o Do Thursday-Friday, Dec. 14-15, at 8:15 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 16, at 7 and 10 p.m. at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $10 Thursday and $15 Friday and Saturday. 919/682-3343 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/171/.