Dell'Arte Producing Artistic Director Michael Fields sits in a green plastic chair on the grassy slope in front of the Rooney Amphitheater stage. He's watching Shannon MacMillan and Andrew Pheonix, students from the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, run lines from the beginning of the noirish "eco-thriller" Intrigue at Ah-Pah.
MacMillan plays Scar Tissue, "Eureka's only lady private detective." As the story begins she's taking a vacation from the city to get in a little fishing and visit Pops at his place in the mountains. At least, that's her plan.
Before it's over the play becomes a ripped-from-the-headlines murder mystery touching on threatened salmon runs, stolen river water, dam removal and other hot-button issues. The topics seem fresh, but this is in fact a revival of a piece originally written and presented by the Dell'Arte Company 30 years ago, when their concept of "theatre of place" was in a nascent form.
Back then Fields was one of the Ah-Pah actors, along with Dell'Arte Founding Director Joan Schirle, who played Scar, and former artistic director Donald Forrest. "I was Pops," said Fields, taking a break from rehearsal. "We did triples, so I was also Wilson, who gets killed, and The Guy in White. Andrew plays all three of those this time."
Brian Moore from the Glasnost Family Band plays the three roles originally handled by Forrest, including Deep Trout, a very large fish in a trenchcoat. Tyler Olsen and Kate Braidwood fill out the cast.
A quick poll of the cast members present showed that none was born when the play debuted in Blue Lake's Perigot Park in 1979.
According to Fields, one reason for the revival was the lack of progress in dealing with the issues involved. "Nothing has changed," he said. "The dams were in the newspaper every day back then, the whole issue with the Klamath and the water."
The massive salmon kill of 2002 comes up in Scar's onstage conversation with Pops, an indication that the script has been tinkered at least slightly. "We will update a bit," said Fields. "We haven't rewritten a lot. Joan and I were talking about it a couple of days ago; it's tricky because the play is so tightly plotted. Intersecting into plotlines become complicated, but we were looking at how we could bring issues into the informational sections without being didactic. The play doesn't come out and hit you in the face."
One key change in staging is the integration of the band, expanded from a lone clarinetist in the original to a four-piece combo led, as usual, by Dell'Arte "resident composer," Tim Gray. "They're much more part of the world of the play in this one," said Fields explaining that the band will be onstage dressed in trenchcoats (both for style and warmth).
Like the play, the set was still a work in progress. When I saw it, stylized black redwood trees framed the action, but there was more to come. "The whole set will be black and white," said Fields. "When it's done the roofline will be jagged mountains all in black, then across the back, a dam in gray. It's all almost two-dimensional and in back and white to try to create the noir world in a outdoor setting, which isn't easy. [In 1979] we did in Perigot Park on a traditional commedia stage."
Asked about how the play connects to commedia dell'arte's ancient roots, Fields talks first of acting style. "The actors play multiple characters. And there's a sense of physicality to it all: the actors take on the body shapes of the different characters. There's something interesting to me about how you double and triple. These guys will literally go offstage and come back on as somebody else, sometimes in under a minute. It's like wearing a mask but with your body serving as the mask of the character.
"Everyone in the cast has been through the [Dell'Arte] training, which makes a huge difference. Donald said to me, 'We could do it; I could do that fight again.' He says this struggling to get out of his chair, 'Just give me my cane; it's right there.' Donald, Donald, Donald."
Classic commedia also touched on social/political issues of the day. "It's about having a point-of-view about the community you're living in," said Fields. "Where we've made the jump is from the satire of something like Korbel [Dell'Arte's long-running satirical Blue Lake soap opera] to the land of commedia noir, as it were. It combines those two genres and creates archetypical characters who are of this place."
And, he emphasizes, this is not light comedy: "People die. About half the cast is dead by the end. Was it Raymond Chandler who said how amazing it is that people kill for so little?"
(The full quote, from Chandler's essay "The Simple Art of Murder" says even more: "It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.")
What's it like seeing a young actor take over a role he created 30 years ago? Fields says he's not having problems with it. "It's great. The interesting thing is seeing that the work stands without us, which is important. The play, the script, the piece itself stands without us. The main thing for me is to get out of the way of them developing their own take on it."
Dell'Arte's Mad River Fest kicks off this Saturday with a ceremony honoring René Auberjonois, star of stage and screen (big screen and small) and, like Fields, a former student of Dell'Arte founder Carlo Mazzone-Clementi. Regarding the rest of the fest, Fields says it will be a bit different.
"First of all, we're running Ah-Pah for three weeks. We've never done that before. Last year we were selling out Korbel and it seemed like people missed it, so we're going longer."
That also means there's less coming in from out of town. New York's Under the Table, a theatre group including Dell'Arte alums, presents The Only Friends We Have, "an antisocial comedy," the weekend after, July 16-19.
The X-rated Red Light in Blue Lake returns in a slightly different form on Friday, July 3. "I'm taking a stronger hand in the late night cabaret this year, the adult one," said Fields. "I want to put it more into the burlesque tradition, which I think will be sexier and more elegant; more hot, yet cooler."
There's also a special return engagement of The Body Remembers, a piece on the Great Depression first done in May with old folks from Timber Ridge Assisted Living Facility. It shows once only: a matinee Sunday afternoon, July 12, at 2 p.m.
Changes are afoot for the Annie and Mary Day Parade as well. "We're getting rid of the pageant," said Fields. "There will be one parade, not two. The Saturday before Annie and Mary Day [July 18], we'll take our parking lot and this yard and help people design floats for the parade. We want people to participate instead of us putting on a show. We'll help people design their cars, their dogs, themselves to make it more of a participatory event for the community."
Just about any time you talk with Fields about Dell'Arte, he'll return to that idea of community, and the unifying notion of "theatre of place." Same with the entire Mad River Festival, which he describes as "more of a homegrown product" than ever before. "In many ways, the festival is about this place," he says in conclusion.
For tickets or further information about the Mad River Festival go to www.dellarte.com or call 668-5663.