How odd it is for a play to begin with a character wondering if he has reached his end. Such is the case with Manbites Dog Theater’s production of Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey — it begins with a character lying helplessly prone on the stage, uttering the words, “Is it now? I thought I had more time.” And it is odder still when the lights go down, and the words “No Applause” are projected on two huge screens that flank the acting area while the actor slips offstage in the dark.
When the lights come back up, this character (identified in the program simply as “Guy”) re-enters in a wheelchair, and the charismatic Derrick Ivey proceeds to hypnotically hold our attention (almost singlehandedly) for 75 minutes, without intermission. Although the character is seated, it would be fair to describe much of the opening minutes as “stand-up comedy.” Yes, as he addresses the audience, he keeps us laughing; but he also keeps us thinking, reflecting, and feeling. From there he delves into existential contemplations and takes us on a journey, exploring the up-and-downs, the ins-and-outs of life, always with a wry touch of humor. “Time is your friend, and time is your enemy,” he muses, and then he adds “We can choose, for a while.”
Guy is at the end of his life, but this is not a play about dying. Rather, it is a play about coming to terms with living. This is a man who, either in the final moments before he dies or just after he has died, is unpacking his heart to his audience, sharing as much as he can of his version of the-wisdom-of-the-ages. He refers to this talk as “an elegy for the eulogist,” and he puts us at ease with a pair of simple statements: “Nothing is being asked of you here,” and “We’re not here to mope.” Then he proceeds to coach us with such exhortations as “Push yourself a little and go easy on yourself a little,” “Take care of each other,” and “Get out of here and love each other.” And that is just a smattering of Guy’s advice. It is almost as if dramatist Will Eno intended that Guy should deliver his own “Sermon on the Mount.”
It is not uncommon nowadays to refer to a gathering after a person’s death as “A Celebration of [that person’s] Life.” Another term for such a gathering is a “wake.” Of course, the name “Wakey, Wakey” suggests this term wake; but at the same time, it suggests a playful way to inform a loved one when it is time to wake up, to come, as it were, back to life. From this perspective, the play is providing us with a Celebration of Life that is intended to be fun, a celebration in which the “guest of honor” is present and participating. As Guy tells us: “We’re here to listen to music and drink some grape juice, maybe get a free T-shirt. We’re here to say goodbye, of course — there’s always someone or something to say goodbye to, and it’s important to honor the people whose shoulders we stood upon and fell asleep against.”
On a few occasions, Guy addresses someone offstage who never responds. As a result, it becomes easy to forget that another character is listed in the program. So, the entry of Lakeisha Coffey as Lisa is a playfully pleasant surprise. Lisa is a caregiver in what seems to be a hospice facility. Coffey imbues her character with a sense of love and compassion. As Guy’s condition deteriorates, she becomes even more supportive, while maintaining a businesslike attitude at her core. And Coffey makes sure we know that Lisa appreciates the notion of “celebration of life.”
The script calls for Guy to use cue cards, slide shows, and video as aids in his address to his audience. Multimedia designer Alex Maness supplies sound and video that mesh seamlessly with Derrick Ivey’s delivery. Many of the sounds are so realistic as to make us momentarily wonder such things as: is that part of the production? Or did an emergency vehicle with a siren just pass by? Of course, Guy’s reaction to the sound cue immediately answers such musings. And the slides and the video offer a myriad of visuals. All of these effects are augmented masterfully by lighting designer Andrew Parks.
Scenic designer Sonya Leigh Drum has given us an interior that reinforces the idea of the hospice facility. The set is strewn with cardboard boxes, thereby giving the impression that one has packed up and is ready to move on. We were impressed with the decision to place the acting area in a near-right-angle corner with the audience in two sections at right angles to each other facing the set, thereby giving the impression that Guy could easily be cornered and confined and also emphasizing the importance of his ability to break out of this narrow confine as he makes full use of the stage.
A play that is essentially a monologue runs the risk of becoming static or even boring, but director Jeff M. Storer does an excellent job of avoiding such pitfalls by blocking Ivey to make full use of the ramps and multiple levels of the stage. The pace is such that we found ourselves doubting that the promised 75 minutes had actually passed; but there is a clock very near the center of the upstage wall, and we suspect that one of its purposes is to prove that the play begins at 8:15 and ends at 9:30 p.m.
Good theater easily provokes laughter or tears. After all, audiences come to plays expecting to laugh or to cry or, perhaps, to do a little of both. Great theater has the ability to move its audience to do both at the same time — to laugh while crying. At various points, we found ourselves doing both.
Along with many local theater fans, we lament that Manbites Dog Theater will be ceasing its operations, but we are glad that they are going out on such a triumphant note. Wakey, Wakey measures up to the best of MDT’s offerings over the past three decades. We heartily recommend it!
SECOND OPINION: May 11th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8968; May 9th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/wakey-wakey/Event?oid=14097963; and April0th Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article209817894.html.
Manbites Dog Theater presents WAKEY, WAKEY at 8:15 p.m. May 12, 2 p.m. May 13, and 8:15 p.m. May 23-26, 2 p.m. May 27, 8:15 p.m. May 30-June 2, 2 p.m. June 3, 8:15 p.m. June 6-9, and 2 p.m. June 10 at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
TICKETS: $12 Wednesday and Thursday and $20 Friday-Sunday, except $6 Wednesday and Thursday and $10 Friday-Sunday for students with ID, and a $2 discount for seniors 62+ and active-duty military personnel.
BOX OFFICE: 919-682-3343 or https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?actions=4&p=1.
2017-18 SEASON: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/2017-18-season/.
BLOG (The Upstager): http://theupstager.wordpress.com/.
Wakey, Wakey (2017 Off-Broadway play): https://www.samuelfrench.com/p/62568/wakey-wakey (Samuel French, Inc. ), https://www.signaturetheatre.org/shows-and-events/Productions/2016-2017/Wakey-Wakey.aspx (Signature Theatre web page), and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/6306 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://www.signaturetheatre.org/SignatureTheatre/media/PDFs/wakeywakey_study_guide_7.pdf (Signature Theatre of New York City).
Will Eno (Brooklyn, NY playwright): http://willeno.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/39221 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/will-eno-398717 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm3644326/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Eno (Wikipedia).
Jeff M. Storer (Manbites Dog co-founder and artistic director and Duke Theater Studies professor): https://theaterstudies.duke.edu/people/jeff-m-storer (Duke Theater Studies bio), https://arts.duke.edu/artsjournal/faculty-profile-jeff-storer (DukeArts profile), and https://www.facebook.com/jeff.storer.9 (Facebook page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.