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The robust and enormously diverse arts scene in the Triangle has numerous competing organizations in each genre. What makes our area even more artistically satisfying is that, for the most part, there is a strong commitment to collaboration as opposed to cutthroat competition. One of these partnerships is between Manbites Dog Theater and Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. Presented as part of Manbites Dog's Other Voices Series is the new play The New Colossus by Tamara Kissane, a Durham-based actor, playwright, and director. It is critical that the subtitle be included: Adapted from Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. More on that later.
First, a shoutout of thanks to Manbites Dog's management and staff for keeping the attendees informed via email and texts regarding the performance. Their air conditioning was not quite working at full force, but their heads up to everyone (plus free ice cold bottles of water) helped lessen the discomfort.
Upon entering this theater one never knows what the configuration of the space will be. It is but one of the charms of this Durham institution. This time, the "stage" is in the center with rows of chairs on either side. The set is meant to look like a beach scene with floaties and beach toys strewn across the stage. Miyuki Su, set designer, has created a visually enchanting look of dozens of white umbrellas hung upside down from the ceiling. This is another of those "plays before the play actually starts" where the cast members come out and appear to be just having a nice day on the beach.
The real action begins as we see Konrad (Alex Jackson), an aspiring young filmmaker, presenting the premiere of his apocalyptic vision. All his friends and family are present and he is a few moments into his dark, depressing tale when an annoying, loud, obnoxious couple enters and makes themselves the center of attention. Can you imagine such people? The couple turns out to be Irina, played with delicious bitchiness by J Evarts, and Trig (Jaybird O'Berski). Irina, an aging actress, is Konrad's mother and Trig is her relatively new husband and a successful trashy novelist. Konrad's film is a disaster. The immediate scenes that ensue are wonderfully enacted vignettes of how we tend to hide our true feelings in response to the simple question, "What did you think about___?" especially when it involves family. Konrad is mortified and humiliated, particularly because Nina (Alice Rose Turner), the woman he loves and an aspiring actress who also appeared in his film, witnessed his failure. This, along with artistic disdain from his mother, eventually breaks down Konrad.
Thus begins the arc of a somewhat soap-opera-ish, convoluted tale of artistic clashes, unrequited love, professional and romantic jealousy, and wrestling with personal demons. To explain all the facets of the storyline would not only exceed my word allotment but would make for tedious reading — which is why we go to the theatre. While The New Colossus is clearly labeled as both "based on" and "adapted from" Chekhov's The Seagull, but for a bit of tweaking and some modernization it is the same play, including retaining the original Russian character names. These kinds of Russian family dramas, and those of Ibsen, are a deep well of stories that transcend time and cultures. There are countless examples, including Woody Allen's 1972 masterpiece Love and Death. I guess I just don't see the point when the "based on" play is practically identical to the original. Is this perhaps all a playing out of the main character Konrad's objection to Trig's art as appealing to the "dumb-downed" masses, and the play itself is an example of that as opposed to the original?
The production itself, directed with a carefree flow by Dana Marks, employs a video camera as an integral character. Much of the action uses the live camera with images portrayed on all four sides of the theater. There is even a scene where the camera goes outside and talks to real passersby as we see the lights of the old Durham Bulls ballpark in the background. Every inch of this rather confined facility is effectively used, including some nice effects from "backstage" and even spaces between the rows of audience chairs. The sets, quite colorful and interesting, help to offset some excessively talky scenes. Nina's monologue, where she chronicles her life for the past two years, was the worst offender, perhaps suffering from heat and fatigue.
All in all, this was an evening of colorful characters, familiar romantic situations, and misperceived motives acted out with professional timing and acting chops. Sound familiar? It should. I wouldn't go so far as to say formulaic, but it's the basis of hundreds of romcoms and sitcoms. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
The New Colossus closes today, so act quickly to get a seat. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.