Monday, July 6, 2009

Dell'Arte's Origins: Fishy Business

Intrigue at Ah-Pah is playing its final weekend at Dell'Arte. This is my review, more or less as it appeared in the North Coast Journal. I note that I stop just short of suggesting theatregoers ought to see it. I try not to cross that line. I'm not interested in writing a consumer guide, partly because I won't presume to tell people how to spend their money, and partly because my columns reflect my response--or more specifically, how I saw it on the night I saw it. Everyone is entitled to their own response, so my general recommendation is to see what you'd like to see, and make up your own mind.

Dell’Arte was basically a mime and comedy school with a summer festival when its fledgling company of players developed their first full-length ensemble work: a script gleaned from fishing trip experiences at a volatile time, plus community input and an obsession with Raymond Chandler novels, called Intrigue at Ah-Pah. After outdoor premieres in Humboldt, the actors went to L.A. in 1981 to sleep on borrowed floors and perform the show at the small Odyssey Theatre. One morning they awoke to a rave on the front page of the L.A. Times arts section (“a happy marriage of humor and concern, intelligence and discipline…Extremely funny, don’t miss a moment of it.”) Their six-week run sold out in three hours, and they looked out from the stage to see the likes of legendary comedian Milton Berle in the front row.

That was the show that got Dell’Arte on the map in Humboldt as well as the rest of the world. Now it’s back for this year’s Mad River Festival, with an entirely new cast, all young graduates of the Dell’Arte school. Call it “Dell’Arte: The Next Generation.” Or like the new Star Trek movie: new Kirk, new Spock, so why not a new Scar Tissue, Wildflower, Woody, Deep Trout and The Man in White?

For those unfamiliar with this show or its sequels, Scar Tissue is a female detective in Eureka, up in the Yurok village of Ah Pah to fish the Klamath River, but she’s quickly implicated in murder and nefarious plots concerning land grabs and water rights, involving hilarious characters. Shannon MacMillan as Scar Tissue leads an ensemble cast that uniformly shines. Brian Moore, Andrew Phoenix, Tyler Olsen and particularly Kate Braidwood in multiple roles all bring an attractive energy and presence in crisp, confident comic performances. Though this version is inevitably different, this cast is fresh, capable and exciting.

Michael Fields’ direction, the scenic design by Jody Sekas, the special effects and the other elements of the production all combine invention and efficiency. Propelled by the cast’s energy, timing and interplay, this is a tighter than usual production for these outdoor festival shows. Even the music of the Dell’Arte band (Tim Gray, Maria Joy, Mike LaBolle and Tyler Olsen) and songs sung by members of the cast, seem more integrated with the bluesy, film noir mood. The result is fast-moving and funny, full of the elements and surprises expected of a Dell’Arte summer show, but with a delightful and satisfying wholeness.

After all this time, the still all-too-topical script is taut and tasty. Deep Trout still warns that “what you let happen today, your children must live with tomorrow.” But there are updates from the ongoing realities of dams and salmon kills, exploitation and misunderstanding—as well as a Sarah Palin joke. The comedy reveals important issues but by design doesn’t deal with them deeply. Salmon is Everything, a production developed a few years ago at HSU, would make an intriguing companion piece.

This production is an important historical moment in several ways. It reminds us of what the Dell’Arte founders pioneered: not just their unique applications of comedia dell’arte and physical theatre, but their approach to “theatre of place” (which they defined in 1991 as “theater about where you are, for the people where you are, based on an observation of the patterns of human and natural life where you live…”) and to what’s becoming known as “ecodrama.” From New Wave film directors Godard and Truffaut in the 50s to the Firesign Theatre’s Nick Danger in the 60s, the hardboiled detective genre was adapted for existential and satirical purposes, but Joan Schirle’s creation of a female private eye was new. And even though Native American characters seldom appear in Dell’Arte shows, this began their commitment to presenting a Native perspective, which is only a little less rare today than it was then.

This show is also historically important for what it portends. To go forward as a living institution, Dell’Arte has to eventually make the transition from its founders. This production of the show that started it all is the best evidence so far that Dell’Arte has a vibrant future. Both for that reason, and because it’s great fun and an excellent show, this Intrigue at Ah-Pah will itself be remembered. But the only way to remember it is to first go see it.

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