Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Big Fat Liar and Mad River Fest 2006
This year’s  Mad River Festival begins Friday in Blue Lake with the Dell’ Arte Company production of Big Fat Liar. It’s the second of their three collaborations with a Danish theatre based on Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a play about a man who lives by lying and by making up stories with himself as the indomitable hero.
Using an NSA mole and the GPS interface in my Blackberry, I located its director, Michael Fields, lounging at Sacred Grounds. I read the five-act verse play, which Ibsen never meant to be performed, while my driver weaved through the Arcata traffic. I like to be prepared for my ambush interviews.
I found Fields at a table by the door, sipping absinthe and munching on a Danish. I think her name was Freja.
“Are you really going to ask me a question wearing your shades?” he inquired.
“I’m legally blind,” I retorted.
“That explains some of your reviews.”
“With these glasses I can see everything. Into the infrared. Into the future.”
“Really? What do you see about me?”
“I see a letter to the editor complaining that I have not described your beauty in enough detail. Or Freja’s.”
“My assistant writes a good letter,” he smiled, “when not playing a flying pig.”
“I can understand Dell’Arte being interested in Peer Gynt, the most physical and fantastical of Ibsen’s plays,” I said, baiting the trap. “But why three different versions? Why don’t you just, you know, do the play?”
Fields talked about researching past productions, seeing films and videos of the Berliner Ensemble, the Royal Swedish ballet, and the production Ingmar Bergman brought to New York, among others.
He read a version set in New Orleans translated into Cajun. “I met the head of the Norwegian national theatre who has directed it 17 times. He’s doing two productions now—one with a deaf theatre company in Oslo, and he’s going to do part of it in Egypt in front of the Sphinx. He says the play is like a prism—you break it apart and put it back together. You can’t do the full thing—it’s six hours at least.”
“We decided to explore it from three different angles,” Fields continued. “We did our first adaptation, Myth-o-mania, as our Christmas holiday show, and in September we’ll do our final version, The Lie, in the Carlo, and take it to Minneapolis, New York and Denmark. It’s a kind of comedia noir cabaret piece with three of our actors, and three actors from the Danish company. They’re called Jomfru Ane Teatret, which means ‘the Virgin Mary Company.’”
“No thanks,” I said. “I’ll stick with the absinthe.”
“Big Fat Liar, the one we’re doing for the Mad River Festival, is the spectacular outdoor version. We’ve got a burning ship, monkeys and levitating trees. We’re using every actor at Dell ‘Arte. Our live band, with the entire Arcata Gospel Choir singing brand new songs, and a hard rock version of ‘Mr. Sandman.’ We’ve got our teen ensemble. We’ve got children on stage, including a nine month old baby.”
“And Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie,” I suggested.
“Trolls? They live on the Internet, don’t they?”
“ Some of them. The story of Peer Gynt is based on Norwegian mythology and fairy tales. But there are Peer Gynts in every culture. We try to make it relevant—we talk about the Arkleys, Dave Meserve, the Blue Lake laundry thief. But it’s still Peer Gynt’s story---a guy who is full of possibilities, but who wastes every opportunity because he has no capacity to reflect and learn. He has these amazing adventures, but all he does is repeat his mistakes in different ways. He lives in fantasies, the way we’re taught by commercials to live in their fantasies of a perfect life. We basically follow Ibsen’s story to the end of Act 4, when Peer sails home, still hoping that he can say someday that he did something with his life.”
We talked about which parts of the play are supposed to be real and which might be Peer’s dreams, but I suddenly sensed I was needed elsewhere and it was time to shed this secret identity. “Michael, I’d love to chat about this all day,” I said, “but I’ve got to answer these text messages from Tom Hanks, who just told James Lipton on “The Actor’s Studio” that what he really wants to do is write a column, and he wants some pointers. And I have to find a phone booth, or at least a police box.”
“Right,” he said with a sigh. “And I have to go back to Blue Lake and see if the pig can really fly.”
“Which is where Dear Readers must go,” I added, “to learn how much of this was a lie.”
Big Fat Liar plays at Dell’Arte’s Rooney Amphitheatre from June 23 through July 1. Try http://www.peergynt.org for more info on the Peer Gynt project.
In a later column, a brief comment on the production and more about that year’s Mad River Fest:
After the rousing extravaganza of Big Fat Liar, this summer’s Mad River Festival resumes with a new one-person show by Sara Felder, called “OUT OF SIGHT: A Blind Comedy about God Israel and My Mom,” beginning Thursday in the Carlo Theatre and ending Sunday.
With her virtuoso juggling and use of comedy, movement, shadow puppets and audience interaction to explore her themes, Felder has dazzled North Coast audiences before. (Formerly from San Francisco, she’s relocated to Philadelphia.) Describing the content of this show, Felder says: “What’s important to me is that I’ve been performing in and out of the Jewish community for almost 20 years, and I’ve been scared to talk about Israel on stage. So the play is really a piece about trying to find my voice in the conflict, and the complexity and poignancy and heartbreak of many American Jews as they struggle with conflicting emotions. But specifically it’s a piece about this mother and daughter trying to maintain their relationship in the face of these differing views.”
Next weekend (July 14-16) is the second Dell’Arte players show,“Artesmisia,” an original work directed and principally written by Guilio Cesare Perrone (whose version of “The Illiad” was presented last winter), with Barbara Geary in the lead role.
An imperious and statuesque Woman in Green in “Big Fat Liar” (the stilts helped), Geary is also “Artemesia’s”co-creator. The show features choreography by Yong Zoo Lee (who also worked on “The lliad”) and original music by HSU student YounJoo Sin. It’s based on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few recognized women painters in the post-Renaissance, Baroque period. Her father (Orazio Gentileschi) was a well-known Roman artist who encouraged his daughter’s talent. But he brought charges against the friend he hired to teach her about perspective, Agostino Tassi, for raping her when she was fourteen.
Though Tassi was jailed during the proceedings, it was Artemisia who was on trial. Then 19, she was tortured while being questioned by Tassi. Though he was convicted, his friends in high places got him released, and he subsequently disappeared. But he remained a presence in Artemisia’s art. She painted portraits of Judith, who in the Apocrypha to the Bible, beheads her seducer, the Assyrian commander Holofernes.
“She kept returning to that theme over and over again,” Geary observed. “Some say so she could paint Tassi’s face on Holofernes, getting his head cut off.”
Sensational enough for a Harlequin romance novel (and there is one), and a 1998 French film (very romantic and historically inaccurate), Artemesia’s story will get a different treatment at Dell’Arte. “I play Artemesia,” Geary said. “As she revisits scenes of her rape, she becomes Agostino Tassi in her imagination. Her model, named Julia, becomes Judith in her mind. In our terms, she works through what happened to her. It all helps her realize that she can move on—that she has other things to paint.”
Geary describes the production as “visually lush, emotionally intense and ultimately redemptive.” There is even an aspect that might relate to Sara Felder’s piece, in that Geary was initially fascinated with Artesmesia choosing to paint strong Hebraic women instead of the more passive Catholic saints, which were more traditional subjects of the time, especially for women.
The Dell’Arte portion of the Mad River Festival concludes on July 16 with the annual Annie and Mary Day parade and pageant in the afternoon, and a cabaret show in the evening. Tyler Olsen, Dell Arte’s assistant producing artistic director and part time flying pig (in “Big Fat Liar”) is directing this year’s pageant. “For the last few years we’ve had a theme, and this year it’s ‘A Parade of Nightmares,’”Olsen said. “We’ve gone out into the community to get ideas. We asked people to tell us their nightmares, which could be personal or social, like war and pollution.”
The North Coast community also participated through the Mobile Mask Project, which set up at various Farmers Markets and other venues where people could help make masks that will be worn for these events.
This year the cabaret has been moved from the afternoon to the evening to accommodate an “edgier, adults only” performance of songs and short theatrical pieces by Dell’Arte actors and staff, and outside performers. It may get “a little raucous and a little lewd,” Olsen said. “but it’s a lot of fun.”