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May 18, 2006

Stage Matters by William Kowinski - Theatre of Hope: Klamath to Thornfield Hall

Going to theatre is an act of faith in its potential, and an act of hope that this will be one of the times the potential is realized. Of all that theatre is capable of, the expression, and even creation, of community around public issues is one of the most complex, and possibly, the most rare. But on a Friday evening early in May in the Studio Theatre at HSU, I saw it happen.

It was the opening night of three performances by the Klamath Theatre Project, an ad hoc group of Native and non-Native faculty and community members, and some 30 students, most of them from local tribes, who worked for two years to collect interviews, studies and stories, and to create presentations arising from the 2002 Klamath River fish kill, a watershed event in all senses. But I doubt anyone involved could have predicted what would happen on that stage.

Salmon Is Everything dramatized a series of interweaving encounters of fictional characters: a young Yurok-Karuk fisherman and his wife, a non-Native rancher and his mother, a graduate student in biology and a Hupa fish biologist, several Karuk, Yurok and Klamath elders, plus family members, a farmer, tourists, a reporter and a priest, among others. Their interaction illuminated some of the ways the Klamath water crisis affected them all, though the emphasis was on the Native communities where salmon has been the center of life and culture for untold generations.

The cast was composed of Natives and non-Natives: elders, youth and children (as was the audience). Not many had acting experience, but there was not a breath of amateurism anywhere — from the first moment everyone was poised, clear, warm and authentic. It was an illuminating 90 minutes, and a powerful night of theatre.

There were heartfelt declarations presented with such conviction and authority that several actors (Native and non-Native) were moved nearly to tears by their own words. Yet the cast also moved in and out of dramatic scenes with the skill of theatrical veterans.

There was power also in a simple scene of women beginning to weave baskets as they talked. This clearly came from their lives. And when two Brush Dance skirts were brought out, you could feel the intake of breath in the audience. As Native and non-Native characters talked of their lives and those of their forbearers, such historical terms as "termination" and "allotments" attached themselves to real consequences and fates.

The Project's attempt to bring a community together without any culture losing its integrity, to find common interest and common ground, turned out to be mirrored in the form of this presentation. It brought together key elements of European-based theatre with elements of Native cultures derived in part from storytelling and ceremony.

Though they are sometimes reluctant to express their concerns to outsiders, I have heard Native people speak their thoughts and from their hearts in primarily Native gatherings. I have also seen several well-meant, polished but inadequate theatre pieces concerning Native history and culture presented by non-Natives. But even as a work-in-progress, I have never seen anything like this. I wish I had space to name everyone who had a hand in creating it. I felt my faith restored, and my hope rewarded. (There's more information on the ongoing Project at

The story of Jane Eyre — the plain-Jane orphan with a strong will and large heart who survives a brutal childhood and a tragic romance to commit completely to love — is a modern myth. Charlotte Bronte's classic novel of early 19th century England used Dickensian themes of class and classless nobility, centered on an independent-minded woman Jane Austen would have envied.

But it was the romance of the governess Jane with the imperious, impetuous master of Thornfield, Edward Rochester, that created the template for the bodice-ripper paperback industry, and made the story immortal, especially in the movies. Jane Eyre was filmed four times before 1920, and at least once every decade since.

The stage musical version opened on Broadway in December 2000 and ran for six months. The Humboldt Light Opera recently brought it to the impressive Forum theatre at College of the Redwoods (it closed last Sunday). This production provided a pleasant evening (or in my case, afternoon) of musical theatre. It was efficiently directed by Carol McWhorter Ryder with some cunning stagecraft, such as a duet between the older and younger Janes at a gravestone "both" visited, which becomes the seamless transition from the child's story to the young woman's.

Laura Hathaway was successful as Jane, managing her different aspects while remaining sympathetic; Kevin Richards admirably provided the necessary fire as Edward Rochester. His vocal skills made Rochester's masquerade as a gypsy fortune-teller one of the show's highlights. Bonnie Cyr played the comic role of Mrs. Fairfax with skill and energy. The singing and other aspects of performance were uniformly fine. The sets and costumes were handsome (though the orphans' uniforms were a little too clean and preppy to convey the appropriate poverty and degradation).

I doubt any other crew could have moved the scenery faster, or any other Jane could have kept the story moving forward more credibly. But the play itself isn't very good. Its music is pleasant but forgettable, with occasionally clever, occasionally dreadful lyrics. Bronte's story is not only altered and simplified but also homogenized, with an added genetic interpretation of the first Mrs. Rochester's madness, and Jane's spiritual explorations have become nearly an evangelical screed. Adopting Bronte's device of an autobiographical telling, too much is told and not enough dramatized in this excessive two and a half hours. I'm sure audiences enjoyed it, but despite the production's best efforts, there wasn't much to go out of the theatre singing, feeling or thinking about.

Coming up: Beginning May 18, Ferndale Rep presents Some Enchanted Evening, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical revue with songs from The Sound of Music, Oklahoma and Carousel among others. It runs until June 11.


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