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City of Medicine; Hello Penis: A Man-ifesto

Plus The Bell Witch; A Lesson from Aloes

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City of Medicine
Transactors Improv Company
Common Ground Theatre
Oct. 26, Nov. 16, Dec. 28

The TV medical drama has grown so alienated from reality it's almost immune to parody. In the real world, how to handle a human time bomb, or a zombie-ridden afterlife, probably isn't covered at the better teaching hospitals, but it's par for the course for the interns on Grey's Anatomy. At this point the genre is one small step from utter ridiculousness, and in City of Medicine, their new serial medical drama, the Transactors Improv Company bravely takes that step.

Episode 1, which aired (er, played) Friday night at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, introduced the staff of a brand-new hospital in Durham. Three interns (Jeff Alguire, Anoushka Brod and Steven Warnock) will compete for the professional and romantic attention of their self-important higher-ups, played by Dan Sipp, Greg Hohn, Nancy Pekar and Rachel Klem. Jeffrey Moore, in his role as "Blake Paige, Registered Nurse," got the first night's biggest laughs, as he kept abusing patients and picking fights in an attempt to live down his job title with raw testosterone.

Hewing to improv tradition, the show is spun off of audience suggestions, and on this night the audience scored comic points early and often (the "Durham news item": "Duke students go to Durham"). True to doctor-show form, the staff was less concerned with hooking up IVs than with hooking up. Amid the breathless sexual intrigue, one mistreated patient (played by Ryan Locante) was left to slowly succumb to wounds inflicted by an angry platypus.

The cast handled the outlandish situations with aplomb, especially Warnock, whose character and comic performance were equally suave and self-assured. The show added verisimilitude by pausing for commercial breaks, one a drug spot preying on emotional insecurity that ended with a low voice rattling off an absurd list of disclaimers and contraindications. Like the rest of the show, the ad was satire—but only just. The Transactors have found a rich lode to mine. —Marc Maximov


The Bell Witch: A Haunting Tale of Love and Abuse
UNC Campus
Closed Oct. 30

When confronted with abuse, the characters in The Bell Witch discover the coexistence of love and hate and embrace the belief that "no person is all bad." The supernatural mysteries of the weathered Bell Witch legend are beautifully intermixed with equally surreal firsthand intimacies of present-day victims of abuse. UNC graduate student Ariel Gratch wrote and directed the production, delicately organizing his extensive research on the Bell Witch and on stories of abuse to create an innovative theatrical experience that examines the heart of abusive situations, questioning what it means to be a victim.

The small cast of UNC students gave bold and challenging performances in this well-crafted play that used ingredients of game, song and audio effects along with layering of characters' dialogue and quick (though smooth) transitions between past and present times. Actors Elizabeth Peacock, Lydia Rogers, Timothy Daly, Amanda Clark and Katherine Wilkinson revealed the complexities of living with a loved one who hurts you. The Bell Witch offered audiences a provoking view at the reality behind the Bell Witch legend and behind any home that bows down to demons and ghosts, whether real, imaginary or metaphorical. Thus the stage is set for other strong productions from Gratch and company. —Megan Stein


Hello Penis: A Man-ifesto
Manbites Dog Theater
Closed Oct. 27

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Guys and dolls: a familiar foundation for a theatrical production. But what if the "dolls" were actually plastic and the "babes" non-existent? Would that raise any eyebrows? It might and it should, according to Joseph Baker and Kevin Poole, the creators of the Warrior Theatre production Hello Penis: A Man-ifesto. Together, this powerhouse duo has formulated a play that questions the very core of manhood. And yes, there are many scenes where Poole and Baker play with Ken and Barbie.

But before you write them off as girly men, or saddle them with another prejudiced gender tag, it's important to examine the premise of this motif. Both Poole and Baker play lifelong pals who have long been obsessed with defining their own masculinity—moving from children playing Star Wars, to sexually anxious teens, then changing into token alpha male mode during their college years and meaty muscle men in their mid-20s. Now that the men have arrived at the big 3-0, all of this self-awareness and analysis comes to a head at an elegant dinner party where the men evaluate their lives and relive their past experiences and definitions of manly behavior.

Indeed, Poole and Baker try on many different costumes of masculinity throughout their memories of metamorphosis, and the audience is left laughing at the typical male stereotypes the men represent. The sight of grown men playing with dolls is an apt metaphor for the gender identification issues confronted by any collegiate gender-studies class. But when the gags about male stereotypes and gender roles are thrown out the window in the second act and a deeper, meatier analysis of masculinity emerges, the play feels too divided to pull this bigger quarry to the surface. For Poole and Baker, a man may not be a Boy Scout, a warrior, a samurai or a soldier, but the end of the play leaves us guessing what it really means to be a man while aching for the laughs of the first act. —Kathy Justice


A Lesson from Aloes
Deep Dish Theater Company
Through Nov. 10

The dry seasons—real and metaphorical—invite comparison. There's the years-long drought that clings to the South Africa of 1963 in Athol Fugard's play and our present one, an early dividend of global warming. There's the moment of ebb tide that this work documents in the political resistance to apartheid in the playwright's homeland—and a possibly similar exhaustion and doubt felt closer to home, as an unpopular but unstoppable political administration grinds inexorably on, with no apparent relief in sight.

So it's also important to recall that apartheid was widely condemned around the world—but still very much in place—as Fugard wrote this remembrance of the bad old days in 1980. Aloes is certainly no warm bath of nostalgia. It depicts, with commendable sensitivity, the high human price of activism and its aftermath in one family and among a group of friends, after a political crackdown—and an anonymous informant—lands one of them in jail and sends a goon squad out, late one night, to read and confiscate the private journals of another's wife.

Under Joan Darling's measured direction, Piet (Tony Lea) seems a nearly weightless, eviscerated man, but one who hasn't entirely abandoned the ideals that once drove him. Newcomer Kerry Shear's Gladys is wounded, fragile and furious at the violation that has endangered her mental health. Returning to the regional stage, Dante Walker is mesmerizing as Steve, an activist just released from prison and about to go with his family into voluntary exile.

In commenting upon the equally metaphorical aloe plants that Piet collects, Gladys sharply asks, "Is that the price of survival in this country? Thorns and bitterness?" Fugard's answer includes long taproots, thick skin—and the patience to see things through. —Byron Woods

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