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Story Power 

Cornerstone's Eureka myth and Redwood Curtain's fiction

Under uncertain clouds on a warm August evening, the crowd standing inside the entrance to the Blue Ox Millworks Historic Park heard a witty prologue concerning Jason and the Golden Fleece, performed by a barbershop quartet (the Millworks' chief, Eric Hollenbeck, sang bass). Then they saw a funeral scene on a grassy hill to the left, where a young man on his cell phone learns from his lawyer that he has just inherited a Victorian house in Eureka ("C and Cedar -- that area") from the mysterious great-great aunt now being buried. The mythological theme was sounded again, and there to the right, high on the prow of the Millwork's historic wooden ship, was Jason himself.

Then the audience was led farther into the park, to the bleachers in front of the large stage where in the quickening darkness the collaborative production of Jason in Eureka unfolded, captained by the Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater.

As directed by Laura Woolery, half the action was set in front of the century-old Victorian house in contemporary Eureka, where the young heirs, John and his wife Maggie, decide to clean out its legacy of old books and make substantial repairs so they can live there. Born in Eureka, John recently lost his timber mill job. Maggie works at HSU. That she's Wiyot figures profoundly in the ensuing story. They meet neighbors and various others, including those responding to the stranger sleeping in the yard, a silent veteran named Jason.

He is of course the link to the alternating half of the play, which depicts the classic quest of Jason and the Argonauts for the Golden Fleece. The contemporary Jason is looking for "gold," too, which causes Maggie some concern, with its reminders of the Gold Rush.

Playwright and founding Cornerstone member Peter Howard used months of interviews and other encounters in Eureka for the contemporary story, and adapted the Jason story from a book for children by Victorian author Charles Kingsley, partly because it was written in the Gold Rush era of Eureka's birth. (Kingsley is also notable for the phrase "Westward Ho!," the title of his novel that includes a search for gold in the Americas.)

With Howard's skillful script but also the elegant scenic design by Nephelie Andonyadis (including a delightfully old-fashioned "wave machine"), clever prop designs and especially the acting, singing and stage movement, these two stories together made ragged magic. Stylistically, the theatricality along with characters making declarative statements suggested an evening out of the 1930's Federal Theatre Project: Greek myth meets The Cradle Will Rock. But its content was more careful (so politically balanced that one character expressed sentiments on both sides of the recent Timber Wars) and relentlessly positive. Everyone's individual quest is honored, beginning with the community's response to the homeless Jason.

The triumph of this complex collaboration can only be symbolized by the onstage ease and energy of Cornerstone's Helen Sage Howard (as Maggie), North Coast community theatre's Sam Cord (Jonathan) and 6th grader Joana Barragan Carrillo (a neighbor girl), each seeming to inspire the other. To name many more isn't possible: The program has 65 individual bios, ranging from local grade schoolers to elders with no previous experience to North Coast community theatre veterans to Cornerstone Institute participants. Dan Stone's flawless technical direction is just one North Coast contribution to brag on. But those who witnessed Peter DiMuro's enchanting choreography, or Cornerstone actors like Andres Munar (playing both Jasons), Sage Howard, Brandon Spooner, M.C. Earl and singer Michele Denise Michaels may well have future reason to brag that they saw them here.

All of this plus the outdoor setting made Jason in Eureka an enthralling theatrical experience. However, 90 minutes without intermission trapped in bleachers a dark distance from portajohns was probably more than should be asked of even a North Coast audience.

Redwood Curtain presents Fiction, a contemporary drama by Steven Dietz, at the Arcata Playhouse through Aug. 22. James Lawer directs, with scenic and lighting design by Greta Stockwell and costumes by Catherine L. Brown.

Linda (played by Shelly Stewart) and Michael (Randy Wayne) are novelists married to each other. When Linda is diagnosed with a fatal illness, they agree to read each other's journals. Twists and turns follow, including revelations about the involvement in both their lives of Abby (Carrie Hudson), who they separately met at a writers colony.

This play about the tangled webs of life and fiction has its fascinated fans. Stewart and Wayne -- on stage almost the entire two hours -- are impressive. But two aspects of the play and the production defeated my suspension of disbelief. First, the rhetorical overkill. As someone who enjoys witty and intellectual dialogue, it pains me to fault what sounded like ersatz Shaw without G.B.'s substance, spirit or wit. It also didn't make the ungrounded characters any more believable. But fatally for me, the combination of the writing, casting, acting and directing did not compel me to believe in the relationships onstage for a single moment.

Next time: Humboldt Light Opera's Light on the Piazza and Ferndale Rep's Jekyll and Hyde, which also opened last weekend.

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William Kowinski

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