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One of the great things about theater is that it allows you to view extreme close-ups of worlds you could never experience, due to the constraints of time, place and character. I, for instance, am highly unlikely to learn from direct experience the vicissitudes of life in an army barracks — but Howard Craft has diminished my ignorance with the vivid scenes in his new work, Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders, now playing at Manbites Dog Theater.
It sounds like it could be a pirate fantasy for children, but instead the play concerns a platoon of U.S. Army soldiers stationed in Germany for a tour of duty that includes two historical high points: the 1989 end of the Cold War, marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the beginning of the next hot wars, marked by the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
The barracks is a tense place, filled with a stew of disparate characters unmelted though all scooped from the same American pot. They simmer in their macho juices, and occasionally boil out of control. As with Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, also currently playing in the Triangle, this is an all-male play with more than enough testosterone to go around; and Craft’s language is almost as heavily larded with expletives and obscenities as Mamet’s, although Craft’s vision is neither as unrelentingly dark nor as misogynistic as Mamet’s. Most of Craft’s characters have moral lights which they try to follow, and some even try to do right by their women … or at least realize when they haven’t.
Joseph Megel directs a cast of widely varying experience and ability; and he has elicited some touching performances, and some excellent comic moments. These are funny, because the writing is funny — some of Craft’s lines are razor-sharp; others pungent with descriptive funk — and it is a testament to the actors’ submersion in the playworld that they never look out knowingly, or play to the audience for laughs. On preview night, there were a few lurches, and some issues with sound balance and vocal projection; but most of these were resolved by the second act.
J. Alphonse Nicholson, the N.C. Central University theater student who plays PFC Caleb “Calypso” Stephens, and who opened a little too tentative in his presentation of Caleb’s tentative, uncertain character, gained in actorly assurance by the minute. This is his first show; it is unlikely to be his last on area stages. His scenes with his pal “Chill Will,” played by Trevor Johnson with easy naturalism and great timing, are among the most absorbing in the play.
John Rogers Harris as SFC Thomas Leroy Jefferson, gives an excellent, unforced performance. Gil Faison is very good as the retired sergeant “Did It” Davis, a Vietnam vet who now runs a bar and soul food grill near the barracks. If he gets a little sententious at times — he’s just sticking with the script.
While Caleb Calypso is very enjoyable and informative, it does have a couple of basic problems. Although it is a coming-of-age story about Caleb, it doesn’t have that much of a plot. You may not feel the dramatic tension and resolution you might desire — the scenes, which are individually full of interest and action, just kind of drift along. At the same time, the play does have the intention of touching on Big Themes, like racism, class differences, and homophobia. Craft mostly has these unruly ideas under control, expressing them in the stories without undue fanfare, but occasionally they escape, and stand up and speechify. This can be a little tiresome, as when “Did It’ gets preachy.
The miraculous thing about the play is that it exists on stage to be admired and criticized. Manbites Dog has long been dedicated to producing new plays, but they generally have a little bit more of a pedigree. Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders is the first full-length play by Craft, a relatively unknown Durham author, who has previously produced only shorter works and published poetry. For his first evening-length work to be noticed and produced right in his hometown is quite wonderful; whatever quibbles there may be with the script, Manbites Dog has chosen well. Craft’s is a voice we will want to hear again.
Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders continues at Manbites Dog Theater through Nov. 14th. See our theatre calendar or details.