Yakut Drama Theatre

International Theatre Festival at Steppenwolf Theatre

It was as if the Yakut Drama Theatre, imported by the International Theatre Festival, had crossed half the world to show us what we’ve lost. My Beloved Blue Coast offers a living legend adapted and staged by Andrei Borisov from a novel by Chinghiz Aitmatov. It evokes a time when, to prove their worth to their world, men measured their best against nature’s worst. And for the Yakuts, of northeastern Siberia, that measurement persists: for them the folk art of My Beloved Blue Coast must have a power we can barely grasp.

The “hero journey” is a sacrament in patriarchal cultures, a coming-of-age ordeal that ushers a boy into manhood. Here it’s narrated by the tribe’s great shaman (Stepan Emelyanov); acting as chorus, he relates how the boy Kirisk must learn the ways of the sea and the hunter’s skills during his first sea hunt. Teaching Kirisk are his father Emrayin, wise old Organ (the maker of the kayak), and Mylgun, Kirisk’s childless uncle, elders of the animistic Fish-Woman clan. They know the sea and they know that special stars protect them; Kirisk will gain a star when he needs it most.

Except for a stylized backdrop depicting the bay at Piebald Dog Hill, the setting is established only by a slim kayak made up of animal skins and suspended by ropes; canvas waves at the front of the stage rise during a storm and droop in a calm. Though the boat is supposedly marooned on the open sea, the set is strangely claustrophobic, because the top half of the stage space has been masked.

When the hunters sail into a blinding fog (suggested by white panels) and run short of water, they must make life-and-death choices. With the inevitability of a ritual sacrifice, all three older men succumb. Here–in their responses to the inevitable–the play touches the universal. Each death reveals the person through a crucial memory he hates to abandon. Haunted by his recollection of an encounter with the Fish-Woman, Organ prays that his vision will persist after he is gone. Mylgun, whose rage against the wind god failed to disperse the fog, regrets that no children will carry his name. Unable to say goodbye, Emrayin just gives up his life for his son.

As each drops into the sea, he touches Kirisk’s head, both to protect and to remember him. Then each walks toward a bright red light, passing over a dropped scrim. Only Kirisk returns to his beloved coast, after following the sacred stars of the dead hunters. The shaman welcomes the survivor home and, despite the deaths, celebrates a renewal of their world.

The epitome of a way of life that requires more trust in than defiance of nature, Kirisk’s trial by water underlines the play’s conflicts–between land and sea and between human life and the power of the gods. The production works as a metaphor for cultural continuity, as a psychophysical saga of endurance, and as epic legend. The performances, particularly Efim Stepanov as Kirisk and Simon Fedorov as Organ, are convincing, both archetypes and recognizable portraits of individuals challenged beyond their power.

Still, it’s hard to drop all our cultural blinders despite the strong story telling. The female roles are perfunctory and decorative, and My Beloved Blue Coast evokes the tedium of being stranded at sea all too well. Finally, it’s hard for an American audience to grasp what’s truly at stake in Kirisk’s journey. Ignorant of how to measure this struggle because it doesn’t fit our culture, we may end up judging it by adventure-story standards.

I’d never argue that the kind of wretched existence Aitmatov chronicles–where hunters paddle fragile kayaks into unforgiving seas to spear seals–offers a worthy test of character. Yet the play implicitly questions the vision quests we offer our young. A Bulls championship isn’t enough.


Rites & Reason

International Theatre Festival at the UIC Theatre

A different heroism figures in Letters From a New England Negro, the International Theatre Festival’s recent American offering. Presented by Rites & Reason, a drama group associated with Brown University’s Afro-American Studies Program, this one-woman “performance poem” is set in 1867-68 on a plantation and celebrates Hannah Gilcrest, a freeborn Rhode Island black who headed into the south to teach ex-slaves in primary schools.

Developed by novelist/poet Sherley Anne Williams, the piece is drawn from Hannah’s letters. (In addition Williams has invented some lame imaginary conversations.) But despite what we must assume are everyone’s good intentions, the production falls flat.

Hannah, the only black in this teachers’ crusade, is well positioned to chart a nation’s turning point–between north and south, free blacks and ex-slaves, the past and the future. Inspired by her New England abolitionist convictions, she wants to use the power of literacy to root out the servile habits and superstitious submission created by years of slavery.

Instead she confronts unimagined obstacles.

Of course there are the wounded white southerners, who want to reestablish slavery under another name. Inspired by the newly formed KKK, “night riders” forcibly return ex-slaves to their old masters. They misconstrue Hannah’s natural dignity for arrogance; her refusal to wear a head rag smacks of insubordination. Nor is the hostility confined to whites. Hannah’s students find her a curiosity, an alien presence. Why, they wonder, are they suddenly being taught to read when for years they were punished for it? To them education is the white man’s “hoe,” no tool they can use. Because Hannah now lives in the plantation’s big house, she finds herself considered a “new master.”

Rites & Reason banned critics from reviewing all but the last two performances, thus ensuring that no review would appear before the production closed. It seemed a curious failure of confidence, considering that Letters has been ten years in the works and that Rosalind Cash, who plays Hannah, is hardly a novice. PBS taped the Sunday matinee for national broadcast.

But as it turned out Rites & Reason had good reason. Despite a warmly textured score by Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra and a rich mix of African and African American tunes, Benny Sato Ambush’s staging is a deadly bore–glacial, listless, disjointed, and soporific (I’ve never seen so many audience members sleeping), a museum piece in the worst sense. It doesn’t help that Williams’s pastiche is bloated, repetitious, unfocused, and drawn out. (A show said to be 130 minutes in the program in fact took nearly three hours.) Then there was the performance.

Last seen in Goodman Theatre’s The Visit, Cash gives Hannah a powerful presence: she’s a sturdy lady, armed with a large carpet bag and flaunting fashionable hats, bent on reclaiming a fallen world. No question, Cash believes in this story and its hopes for our future. But whether her tentative, distracted portrayal is underrehearsed or underinspired, it amounts to little more than a recitation. Losing steam by the minute, it verges on incoherence by the second act. Hannah Gilcrest deserves better. So do the festival’s audiences, who, trusting in the fest’s seal of approval, shelled out good money for a very bad–in fact unwatchable–show.