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Duke Performances, under the visionary leadership of Aaron Greenwald, continues its foray into collaborative ventures with the Durham arts community by jointly presenting Measure Back at Manbites Dog Theater’s downtown venue. Both presenters give and get in this partnership. For Duke, it gets access to an intimate space for smaller, experimental theatrical events without the angst accompanying travels to Duke’s West Campus. Manbites Dog, in turn, benefits from both the cachet of the Duke name and its partial financial support.
I’ve regretted being a relative latecomer to Manbites Dog Theater and the inventive, creative and cutting-edge theatre that they have presented for twenty-five years. I have come to know that no matter how experimental, out-of-bounds, unusual, or just plain weird that the topic and script are, I can rely on a first-rate production that exemplifies artistic ethics and respect for its audience. Well, with T. Ryder Smith’s Measure Back, that glorious hitting streak has ignominiously ended.
Measure Back, the creation of OBIE (Off-Broadway) Award-winning director Christopher McElroen and Drama Desk Award-winning actor T. Ryder Smith, is ostensibly a rumination on war and an attempt to have an interactive experience with the audience to facilitate examination and understanding of just what is in the human DNA that makes us warlike people. Its press release as a mixed media theatrical “event” (not quite sure what that word adds, but it was used a lot) with three actors and some audience participation sounded quite promising, and certainly on the low end of experimental. But, for more than two intermission-less hours, I endured a half-baked, meandering, narcissistic exercise by Mr. Smith that not only did not answer any questions, but failed even to ask them in any meaningful or cohesive manner.
Upon entering the black box space, I was greeted by Dionne Audain, a well-respected actress with a long list of film and TV credits who would later appear in the play. She handed out an actual brick and asked me to write the name of someone I love on it. That was not the end of the brick theme. Except for a roped-off, forbidden area with standard folding chairs, the only place to sit was on cinder blocks. If you objected, you were grudgingly granted a chair. Mr. Smith came out, and while washing his face in a white bucket and changing clothes, he proceeded to tell us all about himself. That was the problem right from the start. In the end, Measure Back is all about him – I don’t mean the character in the play, but T. Ryder Smith himself. Despite his formidable and versatile acting chops, I couldn’t get past the fact that it practically screamed “ME, ME, ME!” Yes, I know this was meant to obliterate the actor/audience divide, but it did nothing to further the stated goal of the play: why does war happen and are we all complicit?
Next, audience members were randomly chosen and asked to pick others who, not necessarily in this order, looked like they had a lot of money, looked old, looked gay, looked Jewish, looked like terrorists, etc. No, I’m not kidding. It was interesting to observe Smith’s interaction with a man who simply refused to participate. This group of people was then permitted to sit in the real chairs. What does that mean? Dunno.
Much of this “event” (admittedly still labeled a “work in progress,” so I suppose I should cut it some slack) was based on The Iliad by Homer, as both the first work of Western literature and a manual of war. Was it still supposed to be funny the fifth time Smith “mistakenly” read from a Greek pornographic novel instead of the Iliad? We then endured a way too long section, in near darkness, where The Other One, played by Caitlin Wells, intoned some ancient language translated into college dorm wisdom. Then we went to the other extreme with flashing lights, explosions, and Smith, in camouflage fatigues, screaming nearly unintelligible tirades.
Much was made of Smith’s questioning of (some) frightened audience members about whether they could kill someone else, who realized (drum roll, please) it’s not that easy. Some audience interactions bordered on the abusive, and while that might be forgiven in a more successful effort, here it was ugly and mean-spirited.
There was also much made of this being a multi-media event, but the bank of five TV monitors at the back of the stage was underused and seemed superfluous. I entered with high hopes, because this “event” deals with serious, if ultimately unanswerable, questions, and the concept was quite enthralling. I genuinely kept waiting for it to be worth it, but as it hit the two-hour mark, it never happened. In the end, I was totally consumed with boredom and stuck in a room with a meandering morass of smugness. Whether that was a character in the play or the actual actor, I still cannot say.
Measure Back continues through Sunday, November 9. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.