In The Wild Guys, currently at Ferndale Repertory Theatre, we're asked to believe that Andy (played by Mike Halton), an older executive and experienced men's group leader, takes three men he barely knows on a retreat without telling them anything about what they're doing. He invites Stewart (Joe Hiney), a produce manager in one of his grocery stores who he disdains, and entrusts him with guiding them through the woods to a cabin that only Stewart knows about, on what Stewart thinks is a fishing and drinking trip during which he can lobby for promotion.
Then these grown men entrust all their food to Robin (Carl Hanson), who declaims, fantasizes and whines in incessant New Agelish, and has been to many men's groups but somehow decides that this time he won't bring the food so they can forage and hunt like wild men, even though if he'd ever tried this before he would likely have starved already. Though we've seen these men talk on cell phones before they left, none of them brings one along into the woods, including Randall (Hal Bahr), an otherwise wired lawyer, who is only there because Andy is a client and it's an excuse not to compete in a triathlon with his younger girlfriend.
But for the fast-paced first act we go along for the ride, as they get lost in the woods. Though playwrights Andrew Wreggitt and Rebecca Shaw are Canadian, there are Humboldt references added, and some comic video that also provides character background. There's funny dialog and action, and director Marilyn Foote keeps things moving across Gary Franklin's handsome set, comprised of platforms that stand in for landscape. The actors, while not entirely sure-footed on opening night, spoke clearly, interacted well and performed their physical action with comic effect. They all bring something to their characters, especially Joe Hiney, who suggests the hayseed side of G.W. Bush. There's a predictable sitcom feeling, but enough laughs to keep it lively.
Then (after one of Ferndale's long intermissions, nearly 25 minutes) it pretty much falls apart in the bloated and unconvincing second act. There are fewer laughs, and except for a few home truths (Robin complains that when he professes his feminist sympathies, women think he's a wimp), the stabs at seriousness are half-hearted at best. When it was a staged cartoon, the lack of characterization beyond recognizable types and what the actors brought to them didn't much matter. But the attempt to introduce meaningful interactions seemed tacked-on and artificial. Revelations were clumsy, unearned and largely unrelated to what came before. By then, that the premise never made much sense became clearer and more important.
I think most of this play's problems can be traced to its willful misunderstanding of what's called the men's movement, which the play identifies with workshops begun by the poet Robert Bly. The play parodies a cliché -- the popular image of deluded men going into the woods to drum and act like children. By taking that easy course, the play has nowhere real to go. But it doesn't stop there: In effect, it attacks not just the excesses of this men's movement but its essence.
So here's a contrary pitch. There's no one alive who has done more for American poetry than Robert Bly. Together with others, including James Hillman (the most important American psychological thinker since William James), his men's workshops used myth and real poetry (collected in a great anthology titled Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart) to explore issues such as men's relationships with their fathers, each other, women, family, the world, meaning, death and their own numbed and unarticulated feelings. In the face of lazy misunderstanding or worse, it took courage.
For Bly, the "wild man" was about regaining spontaneity, partly through music and contact with nature. Rediscovering "the warrior" wasn't about killing dinner, but focused perseverance. (It's all there in Bill Moyer's video, A Gathering of Men.) Excesses aside, demeaning the whole intent leaves us with little more than today's standard image of masculinity defined by relentless commercials: slightly dim guys whose only real focus is lust for their favorite beer.
To be fair, this play was a prizewinner in some form (there's apparently a one-hour version). It's a community theatre favorite and the basis for a Canadian feature film on the festival circuit, although the movie reportedly drops the men's group theme and makes it a back-to-nature trip.
The Wild Guys runs two more weekends.
Coming Up: Improviso! is extreme Commedia, classic physical comedy with masks, performed by Dell'Arte School first-year students at 8 p.m. at the Carlo Feb. 5 through 7. Sanctuary Stage is producing the annual The Vagina Monologues, and is hosting a fundraiser to support the production on Feb. 13 at Aunty Mo's Lounge in Eureka from 6 to 9 p.m. Proceeds from the production will go to local organizations that work to stop violence against women and girls: North Coast Rape Crisis Center, the Emma Center, Women's Shelter in Southern Humboldt and the Wiyot Tribe's "Vachurr Wimouthwilh." 786-9151 for details.