Last winter, readers returning from trips to Juneau raved about a new play they had seen at Perseverance Theatre, "The Blue Bear."
For the next couple of weekends, Anchorage theatergoers will be able to see the two-man play at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.
The production's opening night on Friday marks what Perseverance artistic director Art Rotch called "a new commitment to Anchorage" on the part of the Juneau company: "Extending our mission of professional theater by and for Alaskans by offering regional theater in Anchorage."
The giant performing arts center in Alaska's largest city has not been home to a fully professional theater company since the demise of the Alaska Repertory Theatre almost a quarter century ago, shortly after the center opened. The center's resident companies have included music and dance groups, children's theater and presenters of touring artists. But straight theater has not found a permanent toehold there.
"I'm hoping we can complete the ensemble of what the center offers," said Rotch.
To kick off what's billed as Perseverance's "first ever Anchorage season," the company has chosen a new home-grown product, a tale filled with beauty and mystery, a story of Alaska.
But not exactly about a bear.
"The Blue Bear" is based on Juneau author Lynn Schooler's memoir by the same name. The book (HarperCollins, 2002) recounts Schooler's time as a wilderness guide for famed Japanese photographer Michio Hoshino.
"I knew him for a little bit shy of 10 years," Schooler said. "He was the first photographer I had with my guiding business. We hit it off right away.
"It was a couple of years before I realized his rock star status."
Hoshino showed up at Schooler's boat with a television crew to document his shoot. His earlier photographs from Alaska and other exotic locales had made him a celebrity in Japan.
His international reputation stemmed not only from his artistic vision and camera skills, but from his willingness to endure extreme discomfort while patiently waiting for the perfect shot to present itself.
At an exhibit of Hoshino's work at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art last month, Schooler described how the photographer captured an owl landing with a rodent in its beak. Hoshino lay motionless on the tundra in a blind near the nest, swarmed by mosquitoes for days on end, swelling from the thousands of bites, concerned that any twitch or swat might disturb the owl and its chicks.
"He suffered for that one," Schooler said.
He also suffered for a picture of a spectacular northern lights display over Mount McKinley, getting frostbitten as he camped out on a glacier for weeks waiting for the right moment on the right night.
In 1996, he was killed by a brown bear in Kamchatka. Many Alaska friends mourned his death. Memorial services took place in Fairbanks, where he had lived, and in Anchorage. A totem pole honoring him was raised in Sitka in 2008.
Schooler's narration weaves memories of Hoshino with ruminations on Alaska biology, history, geography and the nature of life. Schooler skillfully blends his intensely personal essay with observations on how to size a canoe paddle, what species make up the symbiotic community called lichen and the murders of Robert Hansen from the perspective of Schooler's association with one of the presumed victims.
"The Blue Bear" was admired by literati and sold especially well overseas. It has been translated into a dozen languages and is arguably among the finest nonfiction books ever written by an Alaskan.
But is it a play?
FABLES ON FILM
Schooler's sister, Luan Schooler, had her doubts. An experienced director and actor, she put her finger on the theatrical weak spot in an interview with Juneau's Capital City Weekly -- the character of Hoshino "has no apparent conflicts," she said. Without conflict, how can there be drama?
Nonetheless, she took on the task of turning her brother's introspective 270 page book into a 90 minute theater piece, whittling it down to the core story of two men forging a bond of friendship in the wilderness.
Rotch knew "The Blue Bear" would require more than dialogue to succeed on stage. It would also need a powerful visual presence that could convey the artistry of Hoshino along with the message that, in some sense, permeated his work.
"He felt that there was no border between humans and nature," Rotch said.
Lynn Schooler nodded in agreement. "Michio introduced that concept to a lot of people," he said.
What better way to communicate that idea than with Hoshino's own photographs? The play uses his images, blown up large, not as backdrops so much as strong chordal statements at key moments, sometimes replacing action or speech.
To present the images clearly and on cue, Rotch turned to a former classmate, Greg Emetaz, who works out of New York.
"Video design for theater is a brand new field," Rotch said. "But this guy's going to be writing the book on it."
Hoshiro died before digital cameras were practical for his kind of work.
The split-second timing and precise framing of the pictures were captured entirely with old-fashioned film.
That makes the tension in his pictures even more miraculous.
Many record dramatic moments that leave the viewer wondering.
What happens next with the owl and its meal, the aurora dancing over McKinley, the blur of caribou loping across the tundra or the leaping salmon making eye-to-eye contact with a bear bent on consuming it?
"It's storytelling," said Rotch, "and each one of Michio's photos is a story."
BEAR? WHAT BEAR?
Rotch hopes that the simplicity of "The Blue Bear" will allow it to travel economically and even play in countries where the book has been a best-seller.
"It's set in Alaska and the Alaska landscape is part of the story," he said. "But the themes are universal."
Schooler, a self-described misanthrope, boiled the main theme down thus: "It's about a guy that learns how to trust."
In the book Schooler reflects on how he insulates himself from others and contrasts it with Hoshino's openness. The photographer seemed to trust everyone and, by and large, they validated his trust.
The bear of the title is something of a metaphor for that elusive state of mind and heart.
The bed of the book is the search for a rare silver-tinged variant of the common black bear, also known as a Saint Elias bear or glacier bear. But the plot is not one of expeditionary glory. As Hoshino mused following one futile trek, "Maybe not finding a glacier bear is the story of the glacier bear."
Rather, it's a story of finding something much more ephemeral than a blue bruin.
At the International Gallery exhibit, Schooler paused in front of a picture of Hoshino sitting slouched on a fallen tree in soggy Southeast, hip boots pulled up all the way. His Greenland-style cap sits lopsided on his head; the flaps droop loosly over his ears. He wears a meditative frown, his arms folded. His eyes seem to look off at nothing in particular, unless they're drinking in the scope of the old growth rainforest that engulfs him.
"I clicked the shutter on that one," Schooler said, pushing the button on the camera after the photographer framed the shot, set the exposure and struck his pose.
"He was such a humble and gifted person," Schooler said. "You don't meet many people who are both."
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
PREVIOUS PERSEVERANCE PRODUCTIONS
Previous touring productions from Perseverance Theatre have been presented in Anchorage, including the following, all staged at Sydney Laurence Theatre:
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," 1998
"How I Learned to Drive," 2000
"Moby Dick," 2002
"Up: The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair," 2004