I lost my objectivity. I can not critique the world premiere of “The Blue Bear,” Perseverance Theatre’s production of Lynn Schooler’s memoir adapted by his sister Luan Schooler. Here’s what happened: I read the book. I visited a rehearsal. I attended the “Page to Stage” Egan lecture about the transformation of Lynn’s book to Luan’s script. I saw the show two times. I plan to go again. The story and the acting and the images and the music have blinded my critical eye. Parts of the play won’t leave me alone.
Fortunately, I know a professor at UAS who required his students to see the play. English, outdoor studies and geography majors enrolled in English 303: Literature and Environment are examining the relationship between people and nature through various readings that include Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey and Lynn Schooler. After viewing “The Blue Bear” performance this past Thursday, students submitted responses to address the question: “Would you recommend the play to people who have not read the book?” With permission from the students, I borrowed the papers to check my perceptions of this production.
Outdoor Studies major Matthew S. Krisiak had doubts before seeing the play. “How can two men on a blank stage portray a work such as ‘The Blue Bear’? To my surprise, the cast and crew accomplished this task with skill and mastery of the arts.”
“I could not imagine how to translate the occurrences in the book into a stage play,” admitted UAS geography major Susan Hall. “I would definitely go see this play again. I was able to relate to the characters and their experiences together as their friendship evolved into a story that would be lost if Lynn Schooler had not taken his friend’s advice.”
Turning a wildlife guide’s memoir filled with lengthy birdwalks about Alaskan history, geography, and natural life into a well-made play is not an easy task, especially if it is your brother’s life story and the play is performed in his hometown. Luan Schooler, former dramaturg and literary manager for the Berkeley Rep Theatre, masterfully weaves poetic passages from the book into a compelling story focused on the friendship between her brother and a Japanese outdoor photographer.
“In my opinion the play was done very well,” reports Jesse West, a geography major. “The actors’ ability to turn a small stage into an entire landscape was very entertaining.”
Kahle Ess, another geography major observes: “This play brings Schooler’s words to life. The young Lynn Schooler takes us inside his head as he relives the times with his good friend and we see their friendship grow over time. Michio teaches Lynn many things about letting go and trusting again, something many of us can relate to. As someone who enjoys the outdoors, I can really appreciate the book and the play for the truth captured within the words.”
Ryan Conarro portraying Schooler and Taka Yamamoto playing Hoshino are at home on the simple set of raised platforms. Pagoda-like tiered beams hang above upstage walls formed of vertically hung slats, reinforcing the intersections of two men from two different worlds, the rough-hewn Alaskan and the steady, kind man from Japan. Scrims behind the slats catch projected images of whales and bears and reindeer borrowed from Hoshino’s portfolio. Video projections, especially of huge, angry waves threatening to upturn the pair sailing on inland waters of Southeast Alaska, add a powerful dimension to the play. Blue metal camping bowls, binoculars, and a blank rolled-up chart are a few of the props the actors use. Few things are needed to tell the story delivered sometimes in direct address to the audience, and at other times, acted out on the imaginary deck of Schooler’s boat.
The expertly directed actors, with careful subtleness and well-projected voices, show how walls come down between people who trust each other.
“The play is interesting, engaging and well performed,” said outdoor studies major Cory Hansen. “The friendship between Michio and Lynn was extremely easy to see in the play. Both actors did a fantastic job showing the events that lead to these two men becoming such good friends. The play offers viewers insights into a friendship that most people can only hope to find someday.”
“I have to admit,” shared outdoor studies major Dave Lustyik, “that I myself didn’t want to go and waste my time seeing a play, but I’m here to say that it is not a waste of time. I found it captivating. Ryan Conarro did a great job portraying Lynn Schooler, because….well…Mr. Schooler was right there in person watching and he seemed to enjoy it.”
Classmate John C. Stoecki, English major, also enjoyed the production.
“Both actors played their parts well, drawing me into the story and keeping me intrigued from start to finish. The emotional elements of [Schooler’s friend] Kelly’s death and the death of his father and the emotional climax of Michio’s death were performed very well. My date who hadn’t read the book was also drawn into the story. I am considering going back to see it again. I think this play should be performed in the lower 48 and in Japan where Michio is from.”
Phillip Moser, English major, noticed unique details about the production. “The actor playing Michio was outstanding. He did an excellent job of showing changes in his character over time, from a humble, but successful photographer with a limited English vocabulary to a new father, with an honest desire for a family and an increasing mastery over the letter ‘L.’ I really like the play. It was also a great opportunity to meet Lynn Schooler. It is not often that one gets to shake hands with a play’s main character in the flesh. Very well done.”
Lynn Schooler is in the lobby before and after shows to chat, share stories, and sign his books.
Perseverance Theatre’s mission statement acknowledges “Alaska is full of stories and characters that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. We are committed to creating theatre that represents all that is great about Alaska.” Seeing the fictional Lynn Schooler in his Xta-Tufs on stage against a backdrop of the fjords of Southeast Alaska resonates with locals, for sure, but fifteen university students also noticed “The Blue Bear” is a regional story with universal themes that deserve to be seen and heard beyond Schooler’s hometown.
See the premiere and be part of a new chapter in the life of a Juneau neighbor.
Catch the show at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.