In 1987, there was little opportunity in the Triangle to see experimental theater that explored social, political and sexual themes. Manbites Dog Theater changed all that with its first production, Seventy Scenes of Halloween, a scary and darkly humorous look at a disintegrating marriage.
To celebrate its 25th year, Manbites is remounting the show. Despite many other stimulating productions over a quarter-century, Seventy Scenes remains one of Manbites most intriguing and enigmatic offerings, perfectly representing the companys experimental mission.
Jeffrey M. Jones script is set on Halloween night in a suburban home, where Jeff and Joan watch TV and drink while waiting for trick-or-treaters. The plays 70 scenes some only a few seconds, none more than a few minutes give brief glimpses into the couples troubled life of half-heard conversations, petty bickering and misread emotional signals. The scenes also reveal deep secrets that haunt the pair, made literal through ghostly forms that taunt and threaten the couple.
The scenes are not linear and range from realistic to fantastical to absurd, additionally challenging because each production chooses the order of the scenes. The result can be frustrating and confusing, but viewers eventually make their own sense of it, supplying meaning from their own experience.
Co-directors Akiva Fox and Adam Sobsey have cast plucky actors who gamely grapple with the constant changes of positions, props and costume pieces. As Jeff, Dan VanHoozer employs an impressive array of facial expressions and body language to depict the characters sarcasm, indifference, anger and fear. Emily K. Hills Joan is calmer and more vulnerable, but also capable of lashing out when pushed. Carl Martin and Amber Wood play a handful of beasts and witches, as well as young children and goofy neighbors, all with evident glee.
Fox and Sobsey have emphasized humor over horror, diminishing the unnerving, gut-wrenching impact the script can deliver. Fridays opening also suffered from distracting technical glitches and missed cues that further weakened the effect. The production seemed unfinished, uncharacteristic for Manbites.
Still, the play has lost none of its ability to provoke, and, lacking a time machine to revisit the stunning 1987 production, the current incarnation can be recommended as a prime example of theaters possibilities.