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December 15, 2005

Stage Matters

Theater Ain't For The Fainthearted


USC football fans got a little worried a few weeks ago when star tailback LenDale White went down with an injury in practice. They still had the superlative running back Reggie White (winner of this year's Heisman Trophy) buphoto of The cast of Dell'Arte's Myth-o-Maniact no backups.

Fortunately for USC it was a minor mishap and White returned to help them trounce UCLA on the way to their upcoming national championship game in the Rose Bowl. Injuries, even in practice or (as has happened in the NBA) in pre-game warm-ups, are an expected hazard in sports. But in the artistic realm of theater?

As two local productions discovered recently -- within a week and just yards apart -- freak injuries can instantly shake up a stage game plan, or cancel the show. No negligence -- just the breaks of the game.

The cast of Dell'Arte's Myth-o-Maniac [at right] was starting this year's first free holiday road show at HSU's Van Duzer Theatre on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The audience was seated, eagerly anticipating the customary physical comedy of this popular annual performance. The show began with the two female cast members, Audrey Finkelstein and Kali Quinn, singing their opening song as they approached the stage from the lobby.

Christopher Beaulieu, the third and only male player, was onstage, preparing to go out and meet the two women. "I stepped down from the stage, I started to skip up the aisle," he recalls, "and my ankle went out from underneath me and I hit the deck."

So Act I was moved from the theater (where the show was cancelled) to the hospital emergency room. Beaulieu left there after midnight with a diagnosis of a bad sprain, and a wheelchair.

After a short night at home in Ferndale, he was back at HSU at 8 a.m. to help re-block the show for a scheduled 10 a.m. performance. Beaulieu had to replace his walking, running, skipping and jumping with wheeling -- and considerable crawling.

The following Thursday, at HSU's Gist Hall Theatre, a show created by Jyl Hewston's physical theater class called Immortal Steel was scheduled to open at 8 p.m. It was 8:20 when Hewston (also the director) apologized to the audience for the delay, and the show started.

The delay was due to an accident. The show featured 16 actors and some 15 fights -- with staffs, cudgels and mostly with swords. So was an actor's arm accidentally lopped off by someone who didn't know the blade was loaded? Not exactly. A half-hour before curtain, an actor tripped on some stairs.

He had a minor sprain to one hand, but it meant that one key fight had to be cut entirely because he couldn't hold a staff, and otherwise he became a left-handed swordsman, which required other adjustments. "I had to pull the other actors out of make-up," Hewston said, "and prepare them for the changes."

University theater is supposed to be partly a learning experience, and it was for that cast. But the show did go on, for all six performances.

Meanwhile, Myth-o-maniac had more than a half dozen shows scheduled while Beaulieu's ankle was healing, and they were all over the place: Fortuna, Crescent City, Willow Creek and Eureka. By the time I caught the show at McKinleyville High School last week, Beaulieu was adept enough to be doing some wheelchair wheelies and other stunts. "Every show is different anyway," he said, "but I try to add something each time, as I get comfortable with it. So now the wheelchair's become part of the show."

Beaulieu hopes to be on his feet again when they return to the Carlo Theatre at Dell'Arte this weekend, Dec. 15 through 18. "But if I'm not, we'll work the wheelchair in even more," he said. "I don't think it's taken away from the piece." In fact, it's added something. "I've noticed kids in wheelchairs in the audience, and I think it's great if they make a connection with something they've never seen before."

The Greek word for theater means action. Drama is (among other things) the physicalization of fiction, the transformation of the storyteller's gestures and the imagination of the listener into stuff and movement, in order to enact the story's pith and moment.

From the page to the stage -- both enacting it and creating it new every time -- is the job of making theater, and it's sweaty. Though certain kinds of theater make special demands on the actors' bodies, all theater is physical theater. For those who do it, theater is about as effete as football. All kinds of people get involved in creating its apparently effortless magic, but one thing is sure: Theater ain't for the faint of heart.

That includes dance theater, as local children are learning. North Coast Dance performs The Nutcracker at the Van Duzer this weekend, on Friday and Saturday evenings Dec. l6 and 17 at 8 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Come and experience that magic -- and maybe be part of next week's column.


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