Thursday, June 26, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

Korbel IV, the latest episode in Dell'Arte's
ongoing North Coast soap opera, opens
the Mad River Festival this weekend. Posted by Picasa

Korbel IV, Korbel Before and Thoughts on Live Theatre

First, the before IV of Korbel:

 The saga of the Dugan family in the mythical North Coast town of Korbel began in 1994. So before describing the new play, here’s a primer on the story so far, based on Michael Fields’ recollections:

“Korbel I: The Funeral” was centered on the funeral of the Dugan clan’s matriarch, Dorothy, who in financial despair, had committed suicide. Flashbacks revealed the truth about her son Terry, a transsexual Lesbian. Her other son, Tommy, was a logger “who was missing many of his body parts due to logging accidents, and was incapable of doing certain things,” though evidently that didn’t include fathering a child, because…

In “Korbel II: The Wedding,” Tommy had to get married in order to keep his child, but elsewhere in the Court House the Southern Korbel Unorganized Militia (SKUM) was planning a disruption. Meanwhile there was a fight at the wedding, and agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms invaded (“We had people rappelling off the roof at Dell’Arte.”) “Where’s Tommy Dugan?” the ATF demanded, and in a response that Fields says was stolen from the Spanish Baroque playwright Lope de Vega, but which most of us remember from “Spartacus,” several members of the cast—beginning with a 7 year old boy—proclaimed: “I’m Tommy Dugan! I’m from Korbel!” Then, Fields recalls, members of the audience spontaneously repeated it themselves: “I’m Tommy Dugan! I’m from Korbel!”

In “Kobel III: The Birth” the only industry left in the town was a company that dug a deep hole in the ground, and dumped stuff into it. “Nobody knew what was going into the hole, but it was a business, and it was in Korbel” so it was accepted. Until people noticed that no babies had been born since the company came to town. But Dorothy Dugan returned from the dead (as she had in Korbel II), to miraculously cause people to give birth. “We gave little water balloons to people in the audience, and everybody was giving birth—including her son.”

Going for IV

That was nearly a decade ago, and the series seemed to have run its course with what Fields admits was its weakest script. But several factors converged to bring Korbel back this summer. For one thing, there were local events that begged to become part of the saga, like the ongoing drama of Blue Lake’s disgraced police chief, the continuing transformations associated with the Blue Lake casino, and the rise of the marijuana grow house economy. “Kevin Hoover wrote a long article about grow houses in the Arcata Eye awhile back, and suggested in it that Dell’Arte should do a play about it,” Fields said. “The last line of the article was: ‘Are you reading, Michael?’”

But another impetus came from an unlikely source: the Campaign for Love and Forgiveness by the Fetzer Institute, and a series of local forums on the subject sponsored by KEET. The Dell’Arte School was to be one of the locations, so Fields attended. Eventually he went to all of them, and realized there was dramatic material there. “It seemed fitting to do it as a Korbel piece, because it has a past, and forgiveness is a lot about holding onto something or letting it go. You can’t change what happened, but how do you move on? There’s a great quote—I think it was Confucius: ‘Forgiveness doesn’t change the past, but it enlarges the future.’”

(Actually, Dutch botanist Paul Boese said that, but Confucius does have a great quote on the subject: “Never does the human soul appear so strong as when it forgoes revenge and dares to forgive an injury.”)

The question now, as Fields recognizes is, “if comedy and the theme of forgiveness can exist at the same time” in the same play. We’ll all get a chance to find out, starting June 26, the premiere of “Korbel IV: The Accident”… The emergency room of Korbel’s new for-profit hospital and casino, St. Mo’s (she’s the patron saint of gamblers) is suddenly filled with victims of an accident, when a mysterious taco truck driven by the police chief and filled with machine guns runs over several people. But since every second home in Korbel is now a grow house and uses seven times the power a normal home uses, there’s a blackout—only enough power at St. Mo’s to run three life support systems (and of course the slot machines)—but there are four criticals: so somebody has to die!

There are plenty of local references, Dorothy’s obligatory return from the dead and especially, lots of songs by a trio of nurses played by three of the best-known singers around: Joyce Hough, Jayse Lecyour and Lila Nelson. The cast features original Dell’Arte ensemble members Joan Schirle, Michael Fields and Donald Forrest, and local all-stars Jackie Dandeneau and David Ferney, Bob and Lynne Wells, as well as Jane Hill, Lynnie Horrigan, Soren Olsen, Josh Salas and Calder Johnson. Fields promises a spectacular stage set, designed by HSU’s Jody Sekas: “It’s what Vegas would look like if it came to your hospital.”

What's This Review IV?

Opening night of Dell’Arte’s Korbel IV: The Accident saw an overflow crowd in the Rooney Amphitheatre, cheerfully engaged in the annual rites of family mini-picnics, adult wine-sipping and general bundling-up after sundown, gathered to witness the resumption of a hometown participatory soap opera with the Dell Arte brand of comedy, music and local satire. They weren’t disappointed.

Michael Fields anchors the story as ex-logger turned hospital janitor and apparent gun-runner, Tommy Dugan, growling like a North Coast Jack Nicholson (“It’s not a Ken and Barbie world.”) Much of the comic action is in the winsome and capable hands of Jacqueline Dandenau and David Ferney, Bob and Lynne Wells, Jane Hill and Lynnie Harrigan as hit and run victims with backstories, and the singing nurses of St. Mo’s Hospital and Casino: Lila Nelson, Joyce Hough and Jaese Lecuyer.

 In our conversation, Fields likened their musical interpolations to those in Dennis Potter’s breakthrough TV miniseries, “The Singing Detective,” though I was reminded of Potter’s “Pennies From Heaven,” which shares the song “Life is Just A Bowl of Cherries” with Korbel. Josh Salas, Soren Olsen and Calder Johnson are the dancing orderlies.

 The show typically veered from topical local humor and slapstick to the Potter-like poignancy of the world-weary refrain, “Is this all there is?” There were the usual flamboyant touches—a real ambulance arriving at the gate, life support hoses pulsing with neon lights—a spectacular 1950s Las Vegas style set by Jody Sekas, and upbeat tunes by Tim Gray and the Dell’Arte House Band.

What about the question the playwright Michael Fields asked—can this comic mayhem be combined with saying something about love and forgiveness? The answer is yes, thanks to some nice second act writing (the Emily Dickinson lines were perfect), Donald Forrest’s eloquence as Terry Dugan, and Joan Schirle’s brief but delightful appearance as Dorothy, the matriarch. A lot was resolved, but is the story over?

 There’s something about the opening show of the Mad River Festival that inspires ruminations—or pontifications—about theatre itself. Last summer I looked to theatrical origins in traditional festivals. This year had me thinking about the “live” in live theatre, and its relation to the local and community.

These thoughts were also inspired by a conversation with Charlie Myers, my movie-reviewing colleague in these pages, after the benefit concert for Deborah Clasquin last Saturday. (An impressive turnout, though the proceeds will apparently pay for at most one of the three experimental treatments Deborah requires, so donations are still being accepted at the HSU Music Department.)

Charlie and I chatted about the comparative advantages and disadvantages of our respective beats. Although I envy Charlie’s access to on-the-job popcorn, and I’ve noticed that he can critique the latest Spielberg film without much chance of running into Steven at Wildberries (nor of receiving the evil eye from the ticket-taker on his next visit to the theatre), on the whole I think I have the better gig. And that’s even apart from the fact that these days I would only review movies on a sliding scale. If my base rate were $100 say, I’d have to charge $500 just to sit through an Adam Sandler comedy, $400 for Mike Myers, etc.

 Unlike movies, theatre is live and local in various ways, as exemplified by these Dell’Arte summer shows. They’ve become community rituals, and the shows respond to the occasion, even in seemingly small gestures, like a character blowing bubbles for no apparent reason but to interest the children on the blankets near the stage.

That the community sees itself reflected or refracted on stage is part of the “Theatre of Place” enacted in this year’s play, which works because the theatre has the depth of experience and credibility that can come with being located in the community, and because the story on stage can respond to the latest news with the speed and spontaneity of live performance.

 There are prices to be paid in dramatic focus, structure and depth, and references that not everyone knows enough about to find funny. But sometimes revealing the local does more. The Dugan story reflects characteristics of the North Coast, but in doing so it reveals something about many other small towns, counter to media images.

 The kind of differences and diversity symbolized by transsexual Lesbian Terry Dugan (and based on a real story—see Donald Forrest’s moving explanation in the program) is almost always associated with big cities--and “San Francisco values.” But the truth is that they are present in these smaller places, though perhaps less obviously than here on the North Coast. So the shame, guilt and conflict portrayed in this story may exist even more strongly there, and extends to all kinds of differences, not just this one. And the process of forgiveness—including self-forgiveness—or the failure to find it, is a more universal drama of real life.

 In locating an essential drama in the local, there is usually an element of the universal. Being human, the drama is shared, and the community is partly created by seeing it enacted. You can get that universality at the movies sometimes, too. But what you can’t get is the same kind of intimacy when the people on stage and the people in the audience face each other.

 An aspect of this was imprinted on my consciousness some years ago at a small theatre production in Pittsburgh of Arthur Miller’s play, “The Creation of the World and Other Business.” Though it’s comedic, the play deals with weighty themes of good and evil, individuality and community, fate and freedom. The audience was very close to the action, and I had my Satori moment when I saw right in front of me God’s bare feet. That is, the bare feet of the actress playing God. Somehow that made the play real and present.

 These were real people struggling with these big questions, as the human author did, and as we in the audience do. There is something about real bodies on the stage—at times uncomfortable, and yet vitally human. Audiences and actors breathing the same air demonstrates that apparently abstract questions may really be the most basic concerns of the human community. So how do you combine life and art, the everyday with its meaning? Create art. Present it live.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

This North Coast Weekend: Deborah Clasquin Celebration

I don't usually do music events here, but maybe I should. Anyway, there's an important one this weekend, and since the story in Northern Lights unfortunately provides the wrong date, here it is: a benefit concert for pianist Deborah Clasquin begins at 7 PM on SATURDAY, June 21 in the Fulkerson Recital Hall on the HSU campus.

“The main theme of this event will be to rally around Deborah, to make sure she knows how important she is to so many people in our community and the music world, and to give everyone a chance to celebrate herrole in our lives,” said Linda Anderson, one of the organizers of the event. “The other priority will be to try and raise money for her expensive treatments which are not being reimbursed by her insurance.”

As a concert pianist, Deborah is a well-known performer on North Coast stages as well as in prestigious venues around the world, and on television, radio and recordings. As a teacher at Humboldt State, she has trained prize-winning keyboard artists. She has been an activist and advocate for music education. Now some of her North Coast friends have organized a celebration of Deborah Clasquin’s achievements and a benefit concert to help her defray medical costs as she continues treatments for cancer.

Performers for the concert include pianists Ryan MacEvoy McCullough and Emily Loeffler, clarinetist Armand Ambrosini, and violinists Terrie Baune and Signe Nicklas, who is Deborah Clasquin’s daughter. Also featured are The Babes Women’s Chorus directed by Carol Ryder, a quintet of Sequoia faculty members, and Barbara Davenport, Jill Petricca and Shao Way Wu playing a movement from the Claude Bolling Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano.

Tickets for the benefit concert beginning at 7 PM are $20, from the HSU Ticket Office (826-3928) or at the door. The reception with Deborah Clasquin, family and friends will be held in the lobby outside Fulkerson Hall at approximately 8 PM, and is a free event. Refreshments will be served.

Those who cannot attend or wish to make an additional contribution can send checks to the HSU Music Department, payable to Deborah Clasquin. Additional information at HSUMusic.

Update: This turned out to be a very successful event, with lots of good music and a full house, despite the absence of students and vacationing faculty members. I'm told however that the proceeds will probably pay for most of one of the three treatments Deborah will require. So contributions will continue to be needed, and will be accepted by the HSU Music Department.
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This North Coast Weekend: Tim Robbins and More

Also on Saturday, Dell'Arte's Mad River Festival gets started with an appearance by Hollywood’s Tim Robbins and several other members of The Actors’ Gang, an LA-based theatre group, to receive the international Prize of Hope. Denmark’s Institute of Popular Theatre has been giving this award since 1987, mostly to European ensembles, but in 2005 it was presented to Dell’Arte. This year the Denmark organization asked Dell’Arte to select another U.S. winner and present the award here.

The award recognizes a person or theatre working “for human hope in a daring, loving, vulgar, serious, poetic manner with sparkling energy. It is given to those who encourage people to use their own eyes, ears and voice.” Dell’Arte selected The Actors’ Gang for its “powerful combination of contemporary immediacy, public engagement and great theatrical craft,” (said Dell’Arte’s Producing Artistic Director Michael Fields in a formal statement.) Plans are for the award to alternate annually between Denmark and Blue Lake.

The event Saturday begins at 6 pm with a catered dinner in the street and a speech by Tim Robbins in the Carlo Theatre. Seats are limited and admission is pricey ($75 to $150, since it partly a fundraiser.) But beginning at 8:30 pm, the event moves out back to the amphitheatre where the Joyce Hough band will perform and the award will actually be presented. Admission to the outdoor component is $15.

Most of us know Tim Robbins as an actor in such popular films as The Shawshank Redemption and Bull Durham, but he’s also directed two of the more intriguing political films to come out of Hollywood in the 90s or since: the all-too-prophetic Bob Roberts (1992) and The Cradle Will Rock, (1999) about a forgotten moment in 1930s America when art and social awareness came together, and were quickly forced to go their separate ways.

Robbins and friends started The Actors’ Gang in 1981, and have adapted, created and performed some 70 plays since, including their current production based on George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Let’s hope they enjoy their visit enough to bring a production up here.

Also this weekend: Humboldt Pride presents The Laramie Project as a benefit for the 2008 Pride Parade and Festival, at the Arcata Playhouse June 18th-21st and again next weekend, the 25th through the 28th. Benefit tickets are sliding scale from $20-$30, students $15, from the Arcata Playhouse at 822-1575.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Limitations of Tragedy Continued

The Clay Cart suggests limitations of western drama
Recently I reviewed a Dell' Arte School's MFA Ensemble production, Between Two Winters, which was the outcome of their study of classic tragedy.  I also reviewed a production currently at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, called The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. While it isn't itself a tragedy, it had a lot to say about tragedy as a necessary reflection of the human condition. I also referred back to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of the Sanskrit play, The Clay Cart.  I ended it suggesting that tragedy might be less a category based on human nature than on the view of a particular culture in a particular time and place, though expressed so well in a form of drama.

I quoted a literary scholar on this, but I might also mention historian of religion Karen Armstrong who also suggests that this era of Greek drama came after a long period of awful times in that part of the world.

Here's a little more of what I was thinking... Tragedy is often considered the apex and greatest form of our drama, and in a sense of our culture. The idea of the hero with a tragic flaw, undone by hubris, fated to fall from the heights, does seem to express or at least fit well with many other central notions of western culture. The fatal flaw is like original sin, hubris is offending the jealous God. There's perhaps a bit of Social Darwinism--even the mighty fall because the fatal flaw makes them unfit in the continual struggle for survival.

But what if--as van Buitenen suggests--Greek tragedy is not the consummate form against which every other theatrical form from every other culture is measured? What if it really expressed a particular culture--western culture--or even more particularly, the cultural beliefs of ancient Greece? And so it may not be humanity's best expression of the universal human condition: the way things are. Maybe just the way the Greeks thought things are. Maybe just one way things can be. And maybe the ideas that seem to fit so comfortably with tragedy--like humanity as innately sinful (as some western religions say) or humanity as predominantly selfish (dominated by selfish genes) as some western science emphasizes--maybe they are culture-bound as well, and not the whole human story?

Because we do get the sense from our culture that human nature is either damned by Divine design or evolution to accentuate cruelty, ambition, selfishness and violence. Of which humankind certainly provides many examples, which our dramas emphasize in form and content.

But Sanskrit drama doesn't do Greek tragedy, nor does it emphasize the survival of the most selfish, nor does it find drama only in people being cruel to each other. As I wrote in the earlier review: "The Clay Cart is not a religious play; the OSF program describes it as a social comedy. But comparing this play to western dramas and comedies, the most revealing and ultimately inspiring difference to me was the kind of conflict that creates the dramatic action. Yes, there is a villain (though he’s played as a ridiculous figure from the start) and human foibles that lead to complications, but the overall motives are most often generosity, loyalty, empathy and love."

I am certainly no expert on Sanskrit drama, but I wrote about my experience of that play, and found scholarly support. The (Little) Clay Cart, wrote one of its translators, is about "a man of heart" representing India's "classical aesthetic culture." The essence of his character is in how he expresses "moral duty" and "sympathetic generosity." The outcome: "The righteous man may suffer, but in the end he is stronger than the wicked, who is really a fool." He represents virtue, because "he loves his friends and forgives his enemies."

In this sense, it is exemplary drama, which can be soporific, and is certainly not the whole human story. But then, neither is tragedy. Wouldn't we be better off with a little more balance in our drama-- new interpretations of what how virtue is expressed, what it means, what it costs but what its rewards can be--in our own culture?

For after all, our science is showing that altruism is just as natural as selfishness, that animals exhibit cooperation and sharing as well as competition--if we only allow ourselves to see it. And at least in practice, our religious traditions include encouraging compassion, and modelling it. So can't our theatre produce drama (and not just the bipolar of tragedy and comedy) to reflect this? Because we're going to have to achieve a balance--to face our flaws but emphasize our ability to get beyond them, to keep trying--if we're going to be up to the challenges of the future.

To be fair, this is not precisely van Buitenen's point, in his introduction to the translation that OSF uses of The Little Clay Cart. For example, he sets the Greek idea of fate against the Hindu idea of transmigration of the soul into the next generation, making "any single life an episode in a far longer chain. No single life makes ultimate sense in itself; the chain of life does."

Still, his basic point about the culture-bound concept of tragedy allows for mine. Here's more of that passage: "This 'absense of tragedy' [in Sanskrit drama] is sometimes pointed to with a mildly accusing finger, as though any theatre worth the name should have it. Apologists then point out that India was 'prevented' from developing true tragedy by the underlying climate of its thought. This argument takes for granted that tragedy is an almost natural expression of any culture. But why not argue that Greek tragedy constitutes the exception, not the rule, and that it presupposes a very specific notion of moira (fate) that was peculiarly Greek?"

I also must confess that my point was also influenced by Daniel Mendelsohn's lovely essay in the New York Review of Books on the revival of the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha, which not entirely coincidentally, is largely about the hero of 20th century India, Gandhi (although it covers mostly his earlier years in South Africa, where he developed his methods of passive resistance.) The essay begins:

Good people do not, generally speaking, make good subjects for operas. Like the Greek tragedies that the sixteenth-century Venetian inventors of opera sought to recreate, Western musical drama has tended to be preoccupied with the darker extremes of human emotions: excessive passion and wild jealousy, smoldering resentment and implacable rage. These, after all, are the emotions that spark the kinds of actions—adultery, betrayal, revenge, murder—that make for gripping drama. Unpleasant as they may be in real life, such actions are essential to the Western idea of theater itself, in which the very notion of plot is deeply connected to difficulties, problems, disasters...[So] When we go to the theater, we want to see characters doing things. Bad things, preferably."

He finds in the work of Philip Glass another approach, which is not tragedy and probably to many people isn't even drama, or opera. But it is drama of a sort, it is theatre, and Mendelsohn finds it beautiful. And in beauty, is there not something of truth? In the end, tragedy may cause pity and terror. But it doesn't exactly inspire hope. Not only do we need that, but there is plenty in the world and in human nature that's good. To show how people can accentuate that, to show those possibilities, is as human and can be as artful as pushing the easier buttons of fight-or-flight--the reactions that could well be the fatal flaw of tragedy.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Clay Cart at OSF

Vasantasenā, (Miriam A. Laube, left) dances for Chārudatta (Cristofer Jean, right) as Maitreya (Michael J. Hume) looks on, in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of The Clay Cart. Photo: David Cooper.
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The Clay Cart Review

With clouds of incense rising above them, the large cast in colorful costumes is arrayed in a circle. They sit on cushions and stand under lanterns, chanting and singing in a golden light. The opening of The Clay Cart, now in repertory at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, promises an exotic experience from ancient India.

But once the play begins, and those long difficult character names in the program are transformed into recognizable musical sound, audiences are quickly caught up in a story filled with elements familiar from western drama, particularly Shakespeare: star-crossed lovers, a hero down on his luck, political intrigue and revolution, a sardonic fool, a dangerous villain, high-born hypocrites and noble-spirited scamps, an articulate criminal with professional pride. There are mistaken identities, sudden transformations, reversals of fortune, coincidence, violence, melodrama and farce. The plot involves stolen jewels, a pearl necklace, gamblers, a murder trial, and incidentally, a little clay cart.

There’s wit that contemporary Americans can appreciate in this 1960s translation and abridgement of a play that’s something like two thousand year old. The audience I saw it with particularly liked this one: “Wisdom comes naturally to women, but men have to be taught with books.”

The OSF production emphasizes these shared elements. Though Miriam Laube in the major role of the courtesan Vastantasena incorporates some ritual movements from Sanskrit theatre, the acting styles are largely familiar, and delightfully accomplished. Fluid staging, a simple but impressive set (built around and within that circle), gorgeous lighting—from that symbolic golden glow to the pale dawn and the turquoise sky before a storm—all have the signature OSF quality. If the show errs, it’s towards a little too much Broadway gloss. Still, this play comes from a theatrical tradition that is largely unknown today, even in India.

On April 5, 1965 the Beatles were filming an Indian restaurant scene for their second feature film, Help! Between takes, George Harrison picked up a strange stringed instrument used by one of the musicians supposedly playing for customers. It was a sitar. Within a few years, Harrison’s relationship with Ravi Shankar, and the Beatles’ trip to learn meditation in India brought traditional Indian music and ideas into western popular culture in a very big way. After many more inroads since, American audiences can more comfortably explore the cultural differences and similarities.

Of course there had been forays before. Writers like Somerset Maugham described Hindu ideas, and Sanskrit drama influenced western playwrights like Brecht and Thorton Wilder. Probably the first U.S. production of The Little Clay Cart (as this play is usually called) was the 1924 season-opener at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. That production, and most of the few since, tried to honor the strictures of Sanskrit drama, including the 1994 staging at Pomona College in southern California. Around that time, Bill Rauch created a looser adaptation with his Cornerstone Theatre Company in Los Angeles (called The Toy Truck.) Now OSF’s new Artistic Director, Rauch has directed a production that’s somewhere in between: pretty faithful to the text, and arguably to the spirit of Sanskrit drama, as well as to at least some of the style.

That style is codified in one of the holy books of the Hindu religion and philosophy: the fifth Veda, devoted entirely to all aspects of drama. That’s how important drama was, to all segments of society. Vocabularies of movement and expression, types of dramas and how plays were to unfold, etc. were all proscribed, though as a living art, Sanskrit theatre continued to invent and change. But remnants in Bollywood films are mostly what remains in Indian popular culture.

The OSF production uses music, dance, masks and movement, and the staging suggests the settings rather than depicting them—all consistent with Sanskrit styles. The story reveals some social structures ostensibly different from ours, notably concerning marriage (but that’s also true of Shakespeare to some extent.) Still, audiences will find relevance to our current class divides, political struggles, and even relationship complications.

The Clay Cart is not a religious play; the OSF program describes it as a social comedy. But comparing this play to western dramas and comedies, the most revealing and ultimately inspiring difference to me was the kind of conflict that creates the dramatic action. Yes, there is a villain (though he’s played as a ridiculous figure from the start) and human foibles that lead to complications, but the overall motives are most often generosity, loyalty, empathy and love. As one character proclaims: “If a man sets his mind on virtue,/There is nothing he may not dare.”

It was an inspired idea to bring The Clay Cart to OSF, and this funny, moving, vibrant production has to be among the highlights of the season.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Nature of Tragedy: Between Two Winters, Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler

Between Two Winters returned to the Carlo Theatre stage last weekend not as an encore so much as an iteration—a tryout of changes before its upcoming weekend at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco.

Tasked with creating and performing a Aristotelian tragedy by adapting a story from the news, the Dell’Arte School’s MFA Ensemble of second-year students continued to refine this piece beyond its April premiere. Though they did some rewriting, added a character (and their teacher, Ronlin Foreman, is now directing) the play’s basic story is the same: After the first Gulf War in 1991, the mayor of a small Montana town goes to Kuwait ostensibly to honor a soldier from her town for his heroics in saving lives during the attempts to put out the oil fires set by retreating Iraqis, but really to use the photo op with a TV crew filming it to advance her campaign for the Senate.

 It turns out that the soldier had raped her 20 years before, and her daughter—who is also there—is the child resulting from that rape. The news story that was the starting point involved a man confessing to a rape some 20 years later, and asking forgiveness of the woman he raped. But she refused, and insisted he be prosecuted.

 The situation in Between Two Winters is somewhat different: the soldier (Sergeant Mulligan) was Mayor Catherine Tuttle’s neighbor in their childhoods, and it was a “date rape,” when he returned from Vietnam. That the audience doesn’t question that an ambitious politician wouldn’t bother learning in advance the name of the soldier she was there to honor is the key to the conceit, and once past that, the confrontations take over.

 Besides Mayor Tuttle (played by Norah Sadavd), her daughter Naomi (Liza Bielby) and Sgt. Mulligan (Matt Walley), also present are the TV news team and a campaign consultant (Ida Fugli, Barney Baggett, Jamie Van Camp, Adam Curvin and Brian Moore).  The news crew is a kind of Greek chorus, at first witnessing but as the story unfolding before them trumps the fairly boring story they are there to cover, their role becomes more probing, more questioning.

 The final character is Qazi (Deepal Doshi), a kind of Kuwaiti Tiresias who also represents the war’s victims where it was fought. Stylistically, the movie-of-the-week potential of the story is deflected by some movement and singing, but mostly by this aspect of the media becoming the chorus, and the ritualistic action and language.

 The first part of the play is diffuse and confusing: overlapping dialogue may indicate the chaos of a TV shoot, but it doesn’t help define role and character, especially when the student cast is all of a similar age. But the rest is pretty powerful, as it explores the wounds of war, the chain of brutalities, the sometimes difficult line between justice and revenge. Even the oil fires are explored for metaphor, the explosive secrets surfacing from underground.

Violence and death as well as heroes, flaws and fate appear—the constituents of tragedy—and their ambiguities are offered. There’s too much asserted and suggested in an hour for this to be a fully formed play, but Between Two Winters could be described as a poetic dance of ideas that suggests contemporary tragedy with provocative depth—with more depth than some more elaborate plays with the same general intent even attempt.

ive years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Robin Goodrin Nordi as Hedda Gabler shot herself, and the play ended. This season, Robin Goodrin Nordi as Hedda Gabler shoots herself, and the play begins.

 Though both plays were directed by OSF’s new artistic director Bill Rauch, the earlier one was the modern classic by Ibsen, and the play this year is The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, by Oregon playwright Jeff Whitty. I wonder how many times he’s been told he’s a whitty guy? (Now watch the spell-check spoil the pun.) But his play is full of wit and invention, and even if the postmodern jumble sale through time, space and pop culture technique is getting a bit familiar, this show is delightfully theatrical and surprisingly provocative in challenging the whole art-and-audience enterprise.

 Hedda revives to learn that as the heroine of a cherished tragedy, she’s required to stay in character. But in trying to escape the “cul de sac of tragic women,” she sets out on a quest with her faithful companion, Mammy (from Gone With the Wind.)

 Among the other characters she encounters are Medea from Greek mythology and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Also two versions of Jesus. But even more than Mammy (Kimberly Scott) and Hedda’s husband George (Christopher DuVal), the ones who actually become human characters are Patrick (Anthony Heald) and Steven (Jonathan Haugen), living fossils from The Boys in the Band era of flamboyant gay culture.

 Hedda’s odd hero’s journey finally takes her to the Furnace of creation, where fictional characters like her are born, either to become trapped in immortality or to die at some point from lack of popularity, victims of the “genocide of indifference.”

 It’s unusual for a new play to appear on the main stage of the Bowmer Theatre rather than the smaller New Theatre, but this show takes full advantage of the space and its facilities, including the revolving stage. It’s a delightful moment-by-moment ride, that keeps on surprising on one level or another.

 In the end, this play also seems to come down on the side of tragedy as an essential expression and reflection of the human condition. But at other times on this same stage, The Clay Cart and the Sanskrit Theatre’s aim of dramatizing virtue offers a different reading of both art and human potential.

 As editor and scholar van Buitenen suggests, “Why not argue that Greek tragedy constitutes the exception, not the rule, and that it presupposes a very specific notion of moira (fate)…?” And perhaps our arts as well as our science and politics have ignored other possibilities, including those qualities in the world and in ourselves that contribute to more fully accurate images and assessments? Which might provide a balance, even an emphasis necessary for the future of the human enterprise, and the world we tragically threaten? Something to think about, on the way home.

This North Coast Weekend

An encore performance of the Dell'Arte MFA Ensemble's Between Two Winters at the Carlo Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., before its run the following weekend at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. The puppets of the Shoe Box Variety Show perform at the Arcata Playhouse Friday at 7 p.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Ferndale Rep performs a staged reading of Shaw's Don Juan in Hell on Sunday afternoon only, at 2 p.m. Little Shop of Horrors continues at North Coast Rep.