Animal Parade

Tuesday, Dec. 4, 6 p.m., $10 suggested

Shadowbox Studio, Durham

Nancy Merlin sounds remarkably matter-of-fact for a person starting a new theater company in Durham.

“A lot of things kind of aligned, and I just decided to go for it,” says the twenty-two-year-old actor, dramaturge, director, and visual artist, a Brooklyn native and a senior at Duke University. “There was this two-person play I really liked called The Dumb Waiter, and it seemed the ideal piece to start with if I wanted to grow my own company. So I said, ‘OK, cool. I’ll start my own theater company.’”

Of course, there’s more to Merlin’s new enterprise, Monkey Paw/Monkey Claw Collective, than a single positive impression of vintage Harold Pinter. After taking theater classes at Duke, Merlin took a year and a half off from school to “do theater stuff” with Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. She acted as one of the girl-group Weyard Sisters in the company’s 2016 Macbeth send-up, Maccountant; designed an installation and performed in the immersive environmental piece This Is Not a Novel; and did dramaturgy for a 2017 devised musical, Hunchback.

“I learned how to put on a show and how a company works,” Merlin says. “It was a fantastic experience.” During that time, she shadowed LGP artistic director Jaybird O’Berski as he worked on another Pinter play, The Lover, in classes for Incubator, an international theater-education initiative. Watching O’Berski adapt and layer the work with subtexts, cultural references, and dance had a fundamental influence on her approach to The Dumb Waiter, a 1957 psychological drama in which two hit-men wait for orders on their next assassination.

“When I first read it, I immediately thought these two people are stuck; you can see the cabin fever percolating throughout. That made me think of The Shining—and wouldn’t that be fun to bring in somehow,” Merlin says with a chuckle.

When a famous work is produced over and over, “the juicy stuff tends to get lost,” Merlin says. “Because The Dumb Waiter’s so classic and small, there’s a lot of opportunity for texturing or changing things up a bit: to amp up the interesting stuff, strengthen the relationship between the two characters, and re-appropriate it into a new kind of setting.”

The Dumb Waiter will be Monkey Paw/Monkey Claw’s debut production, staged Feb. 15–17 at the Cartier Lounge, a nightclub in the Straw Valley development next to New Hope Commons. When it came to casting the production, Merlin looked to actors she’d met and worked with through Little Green Pig. J Evarts, who has appeared in recent years in The Changeling and Manbites Dog Theater’s The Open House, is “incredibly smart, incredibly deliberate, and incredibly in control of her acting choices,” Merlin says. “I feel I can learn a lot from working with her.”

Merlin also values her rapport with actor and musician Nathan Logan. And Germain Choffart, who recently appeared in Justice Theater Project’s A Doll’s House, Remodeled and worked with Merlin in on-campus productions at Duke, “popped out of the womb ready to do” the role Merlin envisions for him in The Dumb Waiter, one that adds an air of Stanley Kubrick—if not David Lynch—to the proceedings.

“When I first worked with Nancy, we had a natural connection,” Choffart says. “She has a lot of energy, new ideas, and a big desire to pursue her own vision.”

Though Evarts has never seen an artist so young start a theater company before, Merlin’s growth over the past two years and her strong relationships with her mentors at Duke gives Evarts confidence.

“She’s interested in more complicated shows and figuring out what speaks to her, what she wants to see and explore,” Evarts says. Merlin’s choices in playwrights and collaborators “shows she’s really making an effort to stretch herself and make brave, bold choices.”

Further down the line, Merlin plans to star in Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing), a one-person show that “conveys an incredibly deep love for life in the least sentimental way imaginable,” she says. Then she wants to bring another immersive take on an Annie Baker play to Durham (after Bartlett Theater’s The Flick) with a gender-flipped production of The Aliens, staging the drama on a series of café patios and back porches in the area. A collaboration with artists from her native New York is in the offing after that.

Ultimately, Merlin envisions Monkey Paw/Monkey Claw Collective—whose name was taken from a Nick Cave song—as a laboratory where people can “bring proposals, make work, learn from the work that’s made, and use that to make more projects. I want it to be as open as possible,” she says.

Those plans will take financing, though. The collective’s first public offering, an art-show fundraiser called Animal Parade at Shadowbox Studios on December 4, comes on the heels of Merlin’s successful first showing there, It’s a Wild World After All, last month. The post-postmodern musings Merlin places in the mouths of a pop-surreal menagerie including lions, gophers, and geckos puncture our self-important anthropocentricism.

Not a bad first note for an ambitious group that plans to add some unexpected twists to theatrical works already known.

Correction: Harold Pinter’s play is called The Lover, not The Lovers