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Fishy Business 

Dell'Arte: The Next Generation, in a sparkling revival

click to enlarge Tyler Olsen, Shannon MacMillian and Andrew Phoenix in Dell'Arte's Intrigue at Ah-Pah. Photo by Carol Garvey Eckstein
  • Tyler Olsen, Shannon MacMillian and Andrew Phoenix in Dell'Arte's Intrigue at Ah-Pah. Photo by Carol Garvey Eckstein

Dell'Arte was basically a mime and comedy school with a summer festival when its fledgling company of players developed their first full-length ensemble work: a script gleaned from fishing trip experiences at a volatile time, plus community input and an obsession with Raymond Chandler novels. They called it

Intrigue at Ah-Pah. After outdoor premieres in Humboldt, the actors went to L.A. in 1981 to sleep on borrowed floors and perform the show at the small Odyssey Theatre. One morning they awoke to a rave on the front page of the L.A. Times arts section (a happy marriage of humor and concern, intelligence and discipline ... Extremely funny, don't miss a moment of it."). Their six-week run sold out in three hours, and they looked out from the stage to see the likes of legendary comedian Milton Berle in the front row.

That was the show that got Dell'Arte on the map in Humboldt as well as the rest of the world. Now it's back for this year's Mad River Festival, with an entirely new cast, all young graduates of the Dell'Arte school. Call it "Dell'Arte: The Next Generation." Or like the new Star Trek movie: new Kirk, new Spock, so why not a new Scar Tissue, Wildflower, Woody, Deep Trout and The Man in White?

For those unfamiliar with this show or its sequels, Scar Tissue is a female detective in Eureka, up in the Yurok village of Ah Pah to fish the Klamath River. She's quickly implicated in murder and nefarious plots concerning land grabs and water rights, involving hilarious characters. Shannon MacMillan as Scar Tissue leads an ensemble cast that uniformly shines. Brian Moore, Andrew Phoenix, Tyler Olsen and particularly Kate Braidwood, all in multiple roles, bring an attractive energy and presence in crisp, confident comic performances. Though this version is inevitably different, this cast is fresh, capable and exciting.

Michael Fields' direction, the scenic design by Jody Sekas, the special effects and the other elements of the production all combine invention and efficiency. Propelled by the cast's energy, timing and interplay, this is a tighter than usual production for these outdoor festival shows. Even the music of the Dell'Arte band (Tim Gray, Marla Joy, Mike LaBolle and Tyler Olsen) and songs sung by members of the cast, seem more integrated with the bluesy, film noir mood. The result is fast-moving and funny, full of the elements and surprises expected of a Dell'Arte summer show, but with a delightful and satisfying wholeness.

After all this time, the still all-too-topical script is taut and tasty. Deep Trout still warns that "what you let happen today, your children must live with tomorrow."

But there are updates from the ongoing realities of dams and salmon kills, exploitation and misunderstanding -- as well as a Sarah Palin joke. The comedy reveals important issues but by design doesn't deal with them deeply. Salmon is Everything, a production developed a few years ago at HSU, would make an intriguing companion piece.

This production is an important historical moment in several ways. It reminds us of what the Dell'Arte founders pioneered: not just their unique applications of commedia dell'arte and physical theatre, but their approach to "theatre of place" (which they defined in 1991 as "theater about where you are, for the people where you are, based on an observation of the patterns of human and natural life where you live ...") and to what's becoming known as "ecodrama." From New Wave film directors Godard and Truffaut in the ’50s to the Firesign Theatre's Nick Danger in the ’60s, the hardboiled detective genre was adapted for existential and satirical purposes, but Joan Schirle's creation of a female private eye was new. And even though Native American characters seldom appear in Dell'Arte shows, this began their commitment to presenting a Native perspective, which is only a little less rare today than it was then.

This show is also historically important for what it portends. To go forward as a living institution, Dell'Arte has to eventually make the transition from its founders. This production of the show that started it all is the best evidence so far that Dell'Arte has a vibrant future. Both for that reason, and because it's great fun and an excellent show, this Intrigue at Ah-Pah will itself be remembered. But the only way to remember it is to first go see it.

Intrigue at Ah-Pah continues in the Dell'Arte Rooney Amphitheatre Thursdays through Sundays until July 12. It's outdoors; dress appropriately.

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Coming Up: David Ferney presents a new version of his The Misunderstood Badger at the Arcata Playhouse on July 9 only before taking it to a festival in Amherst, Mass. Next up at the Mad River Festival is The Body Remembers, featuring Humboldt seniors recalling the Great Depression, on July 12 at 2 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. It's followed by the New York troupe Under the Table in The Only Friends We Have, described as a dark physical comedy, July 16-19.

Finally, a tip of the hat to the Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy, recently named in a Newsweek magazine survey as the third best high school in California, and No. 31 in the U.S.

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William Kowinski

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