Oh come all ye lonely, baffled and despondent, oh come ye, oh come ye to—Manbites Dog Theater, where your questions will be asked, your fears and hopes revealed, and your dreary isolation breached by a touching production of Will Eno’s Oh, the Humanity and other Exclamations. You may not get enough information to figure out just where you are on the time line between birth and death, but you certainly will be reminded that you are not headed toward the former, and that you might better open your eyes to the Majesty lurking over your inattentive shoulder. Majesty is represented here by actor Derrick Ivey, smiling like the Cheshire Cat as the lights go down, making that spiritual reminder as smooth and snappy as chocolate spiced with cayenne.
If you are looking for plot or even continuous narrative to impose fictitious order on life, don’t look here. As David Berberian’s character, a coach holding a press conference to talk about a losing season, says about his year, this play is “barely a shambles.” It consists of five short playlets, each with one or two characters (plus Majesty, at the end), and nothing really happens in any of them. But stories are told, unanswerable questions are asked, and the metaphysics of reality and representation are given a fresh thrashing. It is all talk—smart, heart-out talk without a shard of brittle cleverness. Eno treats us hapless humans gently; when he laughs at the pathos of our lives, we laugh with him.
Manbites Dog’s artistic director Jeff Storer excels at finding, casting and directing such quirky, literate, humane plays as this, with which his directorial style is a natural fit. In Oh, the Humanity, he has once again helped his fine ensemble of actors disappear into their characters—even as text and set keep reminding us that they are representations. There is always enough air in the room in Storer’s productions: space and fuel for ideas and passions to burn clear without becoming overwrought or manic. In response, we let down our guards: for an hour or two, we are safe to think anything and feel everything; those beside us are not strangers.
The wonderful cast includes not only Berberian and Ivey, but Lance Waycaster, Chris Burner, Katja Hill (channeling Sarah Palin in one section!) and the always remarkable Lormarev C. Jones. The playlets are separated by musical interludes—melancholic, joyous John Prine songs—performed and directed by multi-talented Bart Matthews, sometimes accompanied by the players. But the theatre experience begins at the lobby door: Linwood Hart’s carefully balanced, slightly mad paintings line the walls, and each night Torry Bend performs her Nesting, working puppets while wearing a house on her head.