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Educating Badger 

Digging David Ferney's The Misunderstood Badger

The mascot of the University of Wisconsin's Big Ten football team is (like the state of Wisconsin's) the badger. There's a costumed Bucky Badger on the sideline, and thousands of screaming fans identifying themselves as badgers.

But Professor Harold Burroughs of that university takes this badger thing even further. As portrayed by David Ferney in this solo show currently at the Arcata Playhouse, the fictional professor is obsessed by this "noble but misunderstood" animal, and begins to identify with it.

We see the professor act out scenes in the wild (some in photo projections), recount the childhood origins of his fixation and a dream encounter with a giant badger who has a taste for Scotch and cigars. We hear portions of his badger research lectures, delivered in a faintly Southern, faintly 1930s accent that reminded me at times of actor Charles Ruggles, the fussy big game hunter in the Cary Grant-Katherine Hepburn comedy Bringing Up Baby. But in this piece the humor flashes with surreal discovery, and hints of dread.

Burroughs digs out some badger lore, like early American badger-baiting (sending dogs to harass badgers for entertainment), from which comes the verb "to badger," describing human behavior towards the animal, not the other way around. Human-badger transference is a theme played in various ways, including Burroughs' elaborate attempt to learn one badger's true name.

David Ferney's wrote this solo show with fellow Four on the Floor member Nick Trotter. Trotter also contributes slide guitar interludes, Greg Lojko handles sound and lights and Bruce Marrs did the painting and construction of the evocative badger hat-mask, which Ferney deploys with comic magic.

In its first official performance of what I presume is still a work in progress, Ferney brought his considerable physical and vocal skills to this character. I experienced the show as entertaining but uncertain. I was intrigued, but never sure where it wanted to go.

For example, the program quotes from Jack London's Call of the Wild, and it's clear enough that Burroughs feels that call. If this show's intent was only to portray a befuddled professor gripped by badgermania, then it could be clearer. Tone determines our attitude. The mad scholar is a comic type that must go back before the Romans, and was in the repertoire of vaudeville-trained comedians, so it's familiar from movies. Even though this piece seemed to at least nod in that direction (as with the professor's name of Burroughs, you know, the badger burrows ... you dig?) Ferney wasn't broad or frenetic enough to push this into madcap sketch territory.

Instead, his more deliberate pace suggested the intent to offer a dimensional character, and certainly the professor's clueless projection and identification with the badger had autobiographical back story, as well as those surreal but also obvious dreams. But that went only so far. For example, apart from his clich├ęd professor appearance, we don't learn much about any contrast between his wild yearnings and any academic and civilized life.

And why, of all animals, the badger? Is it accidental, so essentially his obsession could be any geeky frenzy? There's a mother lode of connections between the badger as a digger and the scholar who digs for facts -- Wisconsin is reputedly the Badger State not because of the animal, but because of its miners who dig like badgers -- but while this possibility is mimed, it seems otherwise unmined. Digging into the unconscious is another theme that seemed partially realized.

There were hints of a mythic realm, of Native American stories in which animals and humans transform into each other, but this also came and went. Maybe the intent was to remain ambiguous in that ol' postmodern portmanteau way. In any case, it's got a lot of absorbing and entertaining moments. I guess we can identify with an awkward guy possessed of a helpless obsession and no self-awareness. But I left wanting more meat on this badger's bones.

The Misunderstood Badger continues at the Arcata Playhouse this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 7.

Coming Up

There's a new Great Recession pricing policy for all the Dell'Arte School shows in May: Pay what you will. You can still make reservations, then name your admission price when you arrive. That goes for the Clown show this weekend (Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Carlo) and also the Thesis Festival and the Finals on the remaining May weekends.

The annual HSU Ten Minute Play Festival begins Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the Gist Hall Theatre, playing this weekend and next, Thursdays through Saturdays.

Next weekend, Humboldt Light Opera and College of the Redwoods open a musical version of Little Women, beginning Friday, May 8, in the CR Forum Theatre at 7:30.

And speaking of Great Recession pricing, it'll cost you just $3.89 to see Jeff DeMark perform Writing My Way Out of Adolescence for the first time in two years, at the Muddy's Hot Cup in Arcata on Friday, May 8. It will also be DeMark's 200th solo performance since his first show at the Mad River Festival in 1993.

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William Kowinski

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