Perhaps director Jay O’Berski merely wanted to give us a taste of the actual hardships historical dissidents incurred; a fresh new twist on the theater of cruelty. Or maybe Traction, that up-and-coming network of up-and-coming regional activists, figured it needed to see what its supporters would do when the heat was really on.

Whatever the reason, after the audience for Voices of A People’s History of the United States, a benefit for Traction at Manbites Dog Theater on Saturday night, paid $15 at the door, an over-capacity crowd had to demonstrate its devotion by sitting close together in a room with blistering theatrical lights–but without functional air conditioning. They stayed there, jam-packed, for 1 hour and 58 minutes, without a single intermission.

It’s actually tempting to say forget the audience’s discomfort. We clearly weren’t suffering as much as a host of 29 distinguished actors–many dressed in suits or long-sleeved dresses–who had to stand beneath those lights while they read from historian Howard Zinn’s iconoclastic texts that present a radically different view of American history.

How Rachel Klem and Thaddeus Edwards kept their chill under the circumstances I cannot say. Yet they coolly spoke their truths, reciting from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declarations of Sentiments and Resolutions” and Henry Turner’s parting address to a Georgia legislature determined to disenfranchise African Americans–again–in 1868. Dierdre Shipman, Gigi DeLizza and Byron Jennings II similarly defined sang-froid in subsequent addresses as Emma Goldman, Helen Keller and Malcolm X–just when cooler heads were needed most.

By contrast, Joan J. cannily used the heat in her stirring, revival-style recitation of Mother Jones. So did Nicole Quenelle as labor activist Genova Dollinger and LaMark Wright reading from an anti-war sermon by Martin Luther King. We actually laughed–briefly–at the heat applied when Jeffrey S. Detwiler portrayed film actor Lionel Stander, turning the tables and grilling the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Still, by now, heat is no laughing matter at Manbites Dog. In August 2004, a cooling system unable to counter even modest theatrical lighting with capacity crowds marred the modern-day masterpiece Nixon’s Nixon (see “Creature comforts?” Indy, Aug. 25, 2004).

Clearly, every show since has not devolved into theatrical sauna. But Saturday’s experience–worse than anything we saw in 2004–raises the question: After nine years at 703 Foster St., why are full houses and lights at full intensity still broiling audiences and actors alike at Manbites Dog?

“We don’t run continuously through the summer because we know we’re going to have some days when it’s really hot,” said managing director Ed Hunt. “We’re dealing with 20-year-old equipment; sometimes we get a perfect storm when it’s hot, humid and there’s a big crowd in the room.” The theater is getting estimates for a cooling system upgrade, but may have to defer plans to a capital campaign next year.

File under “local girl makes good”: Jenny Gulley’s mix of vulnerability and tenderness as Dorothy convinced us during Sunday’s performance of The Wizard of Oz. Her backup in this North Carolina Theatre production was impressive; Lynda Clark effortlessly nailed the Wicked Witch (when she wasn’t trolling the kids in the audience for laughs) and Lamont Wade presided early as Uncle Henry.

But after early-childhood flashbacks subsided (credit Edward G. Robinson’s orchestra, which cloned the opening overture from the film), it was hard not to notice how big and empty the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium stage seemed when just four characters were on it–Christopher Sloan’s Scarecrow, David Havasi’s Tinman, Darren Matthias as the Lion, and Gulley’s little girl from Kansas–as happened regularly.

Still, this quartet walks a tightrope with poise, somehow acknowledging the giants who originated these roles without turning in a Xerox of their performances. If only the kludgy tech and transitions hadn’t kept sabotaging the show’s pace–particularly at these prices.

Voices of a People’s History of the United States
* 1/2
Manbites Dog Theater

The Wizard of Oz
* * *
N.C. Theatre

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