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Lucas Hnath’s The Death of Walt Disney at Manbites Dog Theater Is Splendidly Bizarre

Walt Disney (Derrick Ivey) describes his vision of a future utopia (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Walt Disney (Derrick Ivey) describes his vision of a future utopia (photo by Alan Dehmer)

“I’m Walt Disney. This is a screenplay I wrote. It’s about me.”

Manbites Dog Theater’s production of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, presented in association with StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance, is not what it says it is. It is, in fact, a fictional play in which Walt Disney has gathered a few folks (coworkers? friends? minions?) to help him read an autobiographical screenplay that he has written about his Last Days. It’s a reading within a play.

This black dramedy by American playwright Lucas Hnath opened on May 10, 2013 at Off-Broadway’s Soho Rep. The Death of Walt Disney presents an alternate, distorted version of one of the most recognizable figures in the history of popular entertainment. This is not the Uncle Walt that introduced countless animated shorts or attended thousands of movie premieres or welcomed the children of the world into his loving arms at his Los Angeles theme park. This guy is a narcissist of the highest order — power-obsessed, unempathetic, self-important, and emotionally manipulative. Welcome to the Terrible World of Disney.

Hnath’s text is pure poetry. The script itself is laid out like a loosely structured poem. Punctuation is limited, and the play is performed accordingly. The cast is directed by the author to “keep it moving,” without pauses or breaths unless specifically indicated in text. He presents an incantation of enjambments, random utterances, and thoughts, all while Walt reads aloud the “screenplay” and its directions.

Brothers Roy and Walt Disney (Elisabeth Lewis Corley and Derrick Ivey) make plans for a happy workforce, a City of Tomorrow, and suicidal lemmings in <em>The Death of Walt Disney</em> (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Roy and Walt Disney (Elisabeth Lewis Corley and Derrick Ivey) make plans for a happy workforce, a City of Tomorrow, and suicidal lemmings in The Death of Walt Disney (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Initially, this writing style was a shock to the ear. I wasn’t sure if we were seeing a piece of narrative fiction or a Meisner Repetition Exercise. A good 10 minutes were spent fine-tuning the ear to this new music. As the audience learned and accepted Hnath’s language, a glorious roller-coaster was pushed into full throttle, thanks to director Joseph Megel’s tightly paced, perfectly cast, and intellectually stimulating piece of postmodern theater.

Derrick Ivey’s performance as Walt Disney is breathtaking. He is a believable Walt, even though he isn’t doing an impersonation. He blends the charm and the look of the man with the sinister, destructive creature that Hnath has constructed. He speaks the rhythms of this text as though he wrote it himself. This is a truly grand display of high-calibre acting — reason enough to see the production.

Elisabeth Lewis Corley, as Walt’s brother Roy O. Disney, effectively balances the submissiveness that Walt commands with the business savvy that the studio executives need. Her performance is subtle and is a welcome contrast with Walt. Occasionally, her timing feels less sharp than it should be — but her Roy is honest, grounded, and sympathetic.

Walt’s daughter, portrayed with a mother’s sweetness by Lakeisha Coffey, is not as showy a role as that of the two Disney brothers, but she communicates the other characters’, and the audience’s, stupefaction at Walt’s vulgarity with great finesse. Goofy lap dog and son-in-law Ron is played with tremendous moxie by the lively David Berberian, who provides a sunny counterpoint to Walt’s turbulence.

In <em>The Death of Walt Disney</em> at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, Walt (Derrick Ivey) discusses a transfer of power and offspring naming rights with his son-in-law Ray (David Berberian) and his Daughter (Lakeisha Coffey) (photo by Alan Dehmer)</strong></font></p>

Walt Disney (Derrick Ivey) discusses a transfer of power and offspring naming rights with his son-in-law Ray (David Berberian) and his Daughter (Lakeisha Coffey) (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Sonya Leigh Drum successfully puts us in 1966, in the offices of the Walt Disney Company, with her simple but precise scenic design. Tori Ralston’s costumes are fitted to both actor and character, with noticeable period accuracy. The suit worn by Walt is particularly appropriate, and supports the physical vocabulary that Derrick Ivey has given his character.

Andrew Parks’ lighting is surprisingly complex for such a small space, and he effectively transports this small conference room through time, space, and the hectic mind of Disney himself. Projections designed by Joseph Amodei capture the mania of Walt’s mind through filtered snippets illustrating his bombastic orations. Though the clips are sometimes a little obscured, or a tad distracting, the effect is generally one that supports the story and helps to ground some of the more abstract language.

The Death of Walt Disney is a truly original piece of playwriting; and it is directed, designed, and acted by a first-class group of local artists. Manbites Dog Theater and StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance are showing what local theater can and should be: a place for artistic risk-taking. This show will certainly challenge you to not simply sit back and watch, but to lean in and listen, lest you miss something bizarre and altogether splendid.

This production is in the PG-13 zone for language and some gruesome moments.

Walt Disney (Derrick Ivey) contemplates mortality and immortality (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Walt Disney (Derrick Ivey) contemplates mortality and immortality (photo by Alan Dehmer)

SECOND OPINION: Sept. 21st Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/walt-disneyand-staged-drama-itselfdeconstructed-at-manbites-dog-theater/Content?oid=5068368; Sept. 19th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article102834417.html; and Sept. 17th Durham, NC Five Points Star review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: https://thefivepointsstar.com/2016/09/17/the-wonderful-world-of-disney-see-the-dark-side-in-manbites-season-opener/.

Manbites Dog Theater, in association with StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance, presents A PUBLIC READING OF AN UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAY ABOUT THE DEATH OF WALT DISNEY at 8:15 p.m. Sept. 22-24 and Sept. 28-Oct. 1 at 703 Foster Street, Durham, North Carolina 27701.

TICKETS: $12 Wednesday and Thursday ($6 students and $10 seniors 62+ and active-duty military personnel) and $20 Friday-Sunday ($10 students and $18 seniors 62+ and active-duty military personnel.

BOX OFFICE: 919-682-3343, manbitesdogtheater@gmail.com, or https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?actions=4&p=1.

SHOW: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/2016-17-season/the-death-of-walt-disney/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/764348863733991/.

PRESENTERS:

Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/, https://www.facebook.com/manbitestheater, and https://twitter.com/ManbitesTheater.

BLOG (The Upstager): http://theupstager.wordpress.com/.

2016-17 SEASON: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/2016-17-season/.

StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance: http://www.piedmontperformancefactory.org/#!streetsigns/c247l, https://www.facebook.com/streetsignscenter/home, and https://twitter.com/streetsignsctr.

VENUE: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/,

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/about/directions/.

OTHER LINKS:

Walter Elias “Walt” Disney (animator, film producer, and founder of the Walt Disney Company, 1901-66): http://waltdisney.com/ (Walt Disney Family Museum), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000370/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walt_Disney (Wikipedia).

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney (2013 Off-Broadway play): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=4794 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://newdramatists.org/lucas-hnath/public-reading-unproduced-screenplay-about-death-walt-disney (New Dramatists), and http://sohorep.org/walt-disney-2 (Soho Rep).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Lucas Hnath (New York City playwright): http://newdramatists.org/lucas-hnath (New Dramatists), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/45758 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucas_Hnath (Wikipedia).

Joseph Megel (Pittsboro, NC director): http://comm.unc.edu/faculty-and-staff/faculty/joseph-megel/ (UNC-Chapel Hill Communication Studies bio) and https://www.facebook.com/joseph.megel (Facebook page)

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews