I Won’t Bite You is a mystery, a love story, a nightmare, a political crime drama, a memoir, a portrait of a sweet demented soul. The gripping saga of Dorothea Farber (aka Dodie) moves like a freight train carrying volatile cargo set to go off. The story slowly unfolds but we don’t know how, or why or when or if it is going to explode. We just want it to keep moving forward. I Won’t Bite You is not based on a true story although it seems so. Playwright and Director Carey Harrison made it up. Its laurels rest upon the powerful head of Myth — that carefree muse able to describe the human condition better than any one slice of truth ever achieves.
Justice is given voice in I Won’t Bite You. The play is presented as a virtually one-person piece — a tragedy in the tradition of Shakespeare and O’Neill. The fruit of its telling can only be carried on the back of an accomplished actress. Performing the role of Dorthea brings its own set of laurels. Holly Graff’s kaleidoscope of whirling emotional color and deft body expression moves the story around the stage into and out of light and shade as she brings the audience with her. One skill of acting simply resides in the ability to remember one’s lines. It seems a trivial thing to point to but every member of the audience was keenly aware that Graff’s performance was off the charts. It is the vehicle upon which Graff transports herself into the realm of the virtuoso. While depicting a supremely awful life Graff manages to bring a lightness of being to Dorothea. So perfect and so welcome — character and actress united, they save us from the fall.
Dorothea’s spirit is indomitable. It is demonstrated not only in her huge love for Granny Alice and her mother, Nora, but especially in the enduring love she felt for her captor, Frank of-many-an-alias. How much evil is there in this world — the banal and the outrageous? How is it that three generations of this one family — good women trying to lead good lives — could run so headlong into the worst of it? What would any one of us do in Dorothea’s situation?
The challenge in wading through the twists and turns of I Won’t Bite You is that its message is deeply rooted in the age-old existential debate regarding the presence of evil in the world. Paul Ricoeur, who fought in World War II and was a prisoner of war, wrote in the mid-twentieth century about narrative myth and the nature of evil. His book, Fallible Man posed two primary questions—unde malum? (where does evil come from?) and unde malum faciamus? (how does it come about that we do evil?). Harrison speaks from within the generation borne out of the strife, rancor, bloodshed and deprivation of the twentieth century World Wars. Ricoeur said that it is through evil that mankind is able to experience a disproportionate reach toward virtue as the dominant aspect of human consciousness. The duality of love and hate — does love trump the evil beast? Harrison’s play leads us to pile on additional questions about love — where does it come from and how does it come about that we love in the face of evil? For Dorothea, a chilling presence of love arose in the midst of unspeakable cruelty. The irrationality of evil is an intractable mystery — so, too, with love. In Harrison’s play the audience witnesses the complex struggle to find good in the presence of evil.
Dorothea makes us wonder what any perfectly sane, intelligent, empathetic, stand-up person would do. And, when would they snap — because we all snap. We all talk under the spell of the torturer. Like it or not, there is a Dorothea in most of us. Dorothea’s dilemma becomes our own as the mystery unfolds and there is more than one type of person we have to consider. There may be a Dorothea harbored within but is there an Emanuel Levitz, her disembodied interrogator? Can we own that? Dorothea is not showing signs of remorse. She is not seeking forgiveness. She is merely telling her story. But, what does Emanuel Levitz represent? Phillip X Levine’s haunting voice delivered through a microphone above Dorothea’s lonely chair pulls the story through dark passages and leaves the audience wondering along with Dorothea — what does he really want? Is he an advocate? Is he a compassionate mediator through whom her story will find expression? The juxtaposition of innocence and evil in both characters displays an ambiguity whereby we want to think of ourselves as destined for good but too often experience the inclination toward evil. The audience’s grasp of evil as part of the human condition is challenged throughout I Won’t Bite You.
Later in life Ricoeur relied upon the ability of a person to forgive and forget in order to move forward — to put as much emphasis on the power of forgetting as we do on the power of remembering: “What I do know, however, is that the object of this entire quest merits the beautiful name of happiness.” My own sense of Dorothea’s action is that in all likelihood — given the life that was thrown her way — she died fulfilled, if not downright happy. Is it the happiness of a poorly wired psyche that does not know guilt? Or, is it something else? Clearly, she was unable to forget. Harrison calls her “the payment goodness pays to evil, and in paying it, she is the goodness that overcomes evil.” The final scene leaves the audience to write the dénouement in their own hearts and minds.
Susan Alexander Manuso, lives and writes in Greenwich Village and Willow, NY
Photos by Sophie Baker
I Won’t Bite You is written and directed by Carey Harrison and designed by Claire Lambe.
This play runs in repertory with a second play, Rex & Rex, by the same author at the Byrdcliffe Theater in Woodstock on weekends from June 21 through July 7.
Tickets are $20/$18 (65+ & 21 – ) or $30/$28 if attending both plays.
or call 845 901 2893
For more about the play and directions to the Byrdcliffe Theater visit the “Up Next” page on Woodstock Players website.