June 22, 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 troupe 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.
"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."
"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-maniac, 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 Interfaith 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.
"That's a lie!" he said. "They will not be in the show. They'll just be in the audience. Watching their lovechild Shiloh play a troll."
"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 peergynt.org for more info on the Peer Gynt project. The Mad River Festival continues with a new work by San Francisco theatre artist and world-class juggler Sara Felder, July 6-8, and another homegrown Dell'Arte work called Artemisia on July 14-15. The Blue Lake Pageant and an evening cabaret follow on July 16, before the annual Humboldt Folklife Festival July 17 through 22. More on those next time.
Another summer tradition is the Ferndale 4th of July celebration sponsored by Ferndale Rep, featuring its 3 p.m. performance of Celebrate America in the theatre. Call 786-5483 ASAP for reservations to this perennially sold out show.
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