"The Winter Bear" touches on negative issues of Alaska Bush life hitherto unaddressed in any play that I've seen. But the production of former state writer laureate Anne Hanley's latest drama, now playing at Cyrano's, is problematic on several levels.
The action is set in Galena where suicidally depressed teen Duane (Andrew Demientieff) is accused of trying to set fire to Sidney Huntington School and sentenced to Huntington's out-of-town cabin to be the elder's helper. Huntington (Brian Wescott) is unreceptive when his lawyer niece Miranda (Irene Bedard) proposes the idea but is talked into it by a quartet of animal spirits that wander in and out -- sometimes observing, sometimes entering into dialogue -- as entities of a parallel universe.
Duane is deep into his own alternate reality, an online video game. Huntington is absorbed with trying to record his memoirs for an anthropologist and composing a speech for the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. Between the taciturn teen and the cautious Koyukon elder, conversation is fairly limited and superficial.
When Duane recounts his life story, for instance, he makes Huntington turn off his hearing aid. This lets him unleash an uninterrupted monologue, but misses the opportunity to plumb the niches of what makes the character human as opposed to merely miserable.
Not that a lot of young people actually enjoy such analytical acumen, but in a play one rather expects it.
The talking includes some good single lines, as when Huntington complains that writing down stories causes them to lose all their "juice." (I wouldn't be surprised if some of these are actual quotes from the writings or speeches of the real Sidney Huntington, now 95, a lively conversationalist brimming with ideas -- at least he was the last time I sat down with him.)
But the interchange between people -- the breath of theater -- stays stiff, possibly hampering the performer's efforts to portray fleshed-out personalities. Miranda explains her well-intended motivations, but they sound pre-packaged.
The fourth human character, incorrigible opportunist Victor (Tom Jacobs), borders on being a caricature; he shoots ravens at the dump and wolves from airplanes and steals PFD checks from children.
The four animals/helping spirits are also stereotypical, though that is understandable insofar as they are also mythological.
Perhaps for that reason, these performers sometimes seem like the more believable part of show, if in a somewhat Disneyesque way. They include Erick Hayden as Raven whose flippancy balance obnoxiousness with wisdom; Eric Cover as blustery but tender-hearted Wolverine; Erick Robertson as wronged yet powerfully self-sufficient Wolf; Rachel Marquez as silent Lynx.
All of them have to add some pretty strenuous yet graceful physical action to their lines. My calves are still aching just from watching Hayden's two-footed hops onto raised platforms.
"The Winter Bear" will most likely appeal to an audience attuned to accepting multiple layers of reality, the concept that unseen forces interlock with human decisions and direct destiny.
Native legend and taboos inform much of narrative. Whether the translation to contemporary real life here -- Hanley's collaborators include director Jayne Wenger and designer Sheila Wyne -- works or not may be a debate of taste rather than reason.
What is beyond debate, however, is Hanley's direct naming of the plagues that stalk remote communities: suicide, hopelessness, child sexual abuse, bullying -- problems on which millions of dollars have been spent without producing any discernible results.
Can theater succeed where government fails?
"The Winter Bear" continues at 3 p.m. today and at 7 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday at Cyrano's 413 D St. Comment on the play or this review at adn.com/artsnob.
Blues diva Ruthie Foster brought down the house when she last performed in Anchorage. She returns today at 4 p.m. in the Discovery Theatre. Critics compare her mix of deep traditional roots music and soaring soul sound to Aretha Franklin and Joan Armatrading -- and I gotta agree. It's only a matter of time before Foster is too big a star to be playing Alaska, which makes this Whistling Swan show a particularly hot pick. Tickets are $27.50 at centertix.net.
The Valley Arts Alliance is holding a fundraiser, auctioning off the "Dolls on Parade" pieces displayed earlier this year. The "Hello Dolly" event will take place starting at 6 p.m. Friday at the Palmer Moose Lodge, 1100 Cobb Street in Palmer.
Tickets are now on sale at Fireside Books in Palmer, Pandemonium Books in Wasilla, and the VCRS Recycling Center on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway. The price is $35 per person or $60 per couple in advance, $40 per person and $75 per couple at the door. Get more information, including a look at the dolls, at www.valley artsalliance.com.
Drama and dishes at Kincaid Chalet
Selita Helm, who recently brought up actors from Tyler Perry's "Meet the Browns," is producing another play that will be presented today at 6 p.m. at the Kincaid Chalet, at the far west end of Raspberry Road.
The event mixes a "gospel play" with gospel jazz and involves a woman who is picked from her church congregation to serve dinner to Jesus himself -- only to find that her real challenges have nothing to do with pulling out the best linen and china, but a lot to do with the uninvited guests and how she responds to them.
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? ... It's Jesus!" includes what appears to be a very fancy sit-down dinner served to the audience while the performance unfolds.
No tickets ($45) are available at the door, but you may be able to sweet-talk Helm into getting you a seat, even at this late hour, by calling her at 310-0475 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Out-of-state readers need help
We've received pleas for assistance from readers in the Lower 48 and promised to pass their requests along to our readers.
The first is Tiffany Peckosh at email@example.com or 212-645-2205. She says she's a researcher "looking for contact information for David Brink, son of late Frank Brink or other relatives of the Brink family. We're interested in finding original audio recordings." Brink, a busy documentarian among other things, made recordings and films around Alaska in the 1950s and '60s.
The other is "firstname.lastname@example.org berry.net" of Nevada who writes:
"I look for artwork at the local thrift stores frequently and I stumbled across three hand carved wooden plaques which held my interest. They are carved with an Indian motif that looks like Aztec." The back of the plaque identifies the artist at Karl Bashelierand, dated 1983, and a gold sticker says it was handcrafted at the Anchorage Pioneer Home.
"I think this man's work is remarkable," Dixie says. "I would also like more of his work if available. Do you have any information? I just would like to know about him."
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM