Predictability and complacency are two of the enemies of artistic innovation, and traits that have been refreshingly absent from nearly all of the productions of Manbites Dog Theater in downtown Durham. The Brothers Size, the opening play of Manbites’ 2012-13 season, is the epitome of theatrical excellence in a minimalist setting. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s International Playwright in Residence from 2009-2011, this play is part of his trilogy known as The Brother/Sister Plays.

Although many theater goers try to learn as much about the play prior to attendance, I like to do just the opposite and immerse myself as a complete blank slate – especially for Manbites Dog productions, which have never disappointed me. This was opening night and there were African drums playing at the entrance – competing with another outdoor band nearby, giving our sleepy southern town a very urban, hip feel. When the doors opened 15 minutes prior to “curtain time” (no real curtain here), I stepped into a configuration in the theater that I had never seen. Seats were arranged in a “U” shape with the bottom of the “U” where the “stage” (see curtain note) usually was, leaving a vast middle area. At the entrance was a collection of tires roped together four high and the drums were now moved indoors. The very lively acoustics and the unrelenting volume of the drums gave birth to a headache and I wondered what I was in for, especially since we were told that the play was one hour 40 minutes with no intermission. However, once the three characters entered and the first line was spoken, I was totally captivated and immersed in their lives.

The Brothers Size is a complex triangulated love story that, according to the playwright, uses traits of three deities from the Yoruba religion of West Africa. While additional knowledge of this can certainly enhance an appreciation of the characters’ cores, the play can be enjoyed and understood on many levels. The three characters are Oshoosi, recently released from a two-year stint in prison, his brother Ogun, who owns an auto garage, and Elegba, an enigmatic character who was in prison with Oshoosi and represents the forbidden temptations that all of us have. The story is basically that of Ogun, a decent, loving big brother who provides a home and job for Oshoosi in hopes of setting him on the right path and remaining out of trouble. Oshoosi, still immature, somewhat lazy and easily distracted, fights off help from Ogun and is more interested in partying and listening to Elegba, the trickster in Yoruban lore. This is a microcosm of the demons we all face, how we deal with temptations that we know are destructive and dismiss good intentions from those who love us.

A play such as this, which is so intense, intimate and emotive, would fall laughingly flat without a trio of consummate actors who have the stamina, talent and refinement for these very difficult roles. Kashif Powell, playing Ogun Size, is a commanding presence as the upright, but far from uptight, everyman who has carved out a good life for himself and is frustrated by his inability to reform and save his kid brother from self-destruction. He was absolutely mesmerizing during two lengthy soliloquies, one describing an old girlfriend and the other detailing the events of his life with his brother and his resentments for being blamed by others for Oshoosi’s failures. I wanted to run up and hug this man, so powerful and real was his performance.

Thaddaeus Edwards, a veteran of many Manbites Dog productions, played the multi-faceted role of Elegba. He could be smooth, then quite creepy and turn on you in a flash, like a deranged used car salesman. What he was selling to Oshoosi was destruction, and Ogun’s battles against Elegba for his brother’s soul were epic. I won’t give away who prevailed.

We had a local version of A Star is Born on opening night. Jeremy V. Morris, slated to play Oshoosi, took sick a few days earlier and J. Alphonse Nicholson took over with precious little time to prepare a demanding and virtuosic role. Now, I don’t know Mr. Morris and this is not a knock on him, but I cannot imagine a better performance than what I was fortunate to experience by Nicholson. He was introspective, way out there, confused, arrogant, immature, thoughtful and any and all of the conflicts roiling within a young man. Damn good singer and dancer also as both he and Edwards demonstrated in one of the few joyous scenes where they sang and danced to the classic Otis Redding recording “Try a Little Tenderness.”

What made this incredible theatrical evening even more remarkable was the bare bones stage. There were only 3 props: a round wooden spool table that served as a bed, table, stage and car; and two plastic buckets. A percussionist added to the ambience, including playing on the hung tires. Compare this with the mega-million productions just about a mile away and you have me even more convinced that a great script and actors who know how to reach your heart and mind are all you need. The Brothers Size could go into a regional theatrical hall of fame, if one existed, and is a perfect lead-in for the 25th anniversary celebration of Manbites Dog Theater in December, 2012.

The Brothers Size runs through Saturday, September 29. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.