The prose of 'Khan'

Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Kubla Khan inhabit the dream play by Juneau writer Merry Ellefson

Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2002

Sometimes dreams come true - and sometimes they come to life.

Just as Samuel Coleridge's ballad "Kubla Khan" came to the poet in a dream, Coleridge himself comes to Virginia Anderson in a dream, opening a play set in Virginia's imagination.

"Lost in Kubla Khan," a new play by Juneau writer Merry Ellefson, opens Friday, April 26, for a world-premiere, three-week run at Perseverance Theatre.

Virginia, played by Gina Spartz, is a poet who isn't writing, a student who isn't studying and a romantic who is afraid to love. Unable to reconcile the death of her best friend, a man she was falling in love with, she falls asleep one night reading her old journal.

Coleridge, played by Dick Reichman, "awakens" her, taking her and the audience on a journey through Virginia's memory and imagination. It's a wonderland charged by Virginia's deep love and understanding of the romantic poets Coleridge and William Wordsworth and populated with fanciful and historical characters.

"Coleridge was known for devouring his friends, as well as his books. It wasn't until the end that he was seen as this guru," Ellefson said. "He was a total literary giant."

Ellefson worked on the play for five years before bringing it to director Peter DuBois and the cast of "Kubla Khan" several months ago. At that point the development of the play became a collaboration.

"I got it to the place where I knew it needed a hands-on approach," Ellefson said. "I couldn't make any more decisions until I saw things. Because of its nature, a dream play, so many things connect but you don't see the connection until the end. I needed to see them to see if they were working or not working."

DuBois said directing a new play is totally different from directing a classic. There's no baggage or preconceptions with a new play, and the director's job is not to interpret the work, but to realize the writer's intention.

"It's more like being a midwife," DuBois said. "Merry came in with a draft she wanted to change with the actors. Rehearsals were more like workshops - trying different lines, experimenting with how things sound. We cut entire scenes, entire characters."

As they worked, DuBois said the play developed a voice all its own.

"You listen to the voice," he said.

Ellefson said the same is true for the characters. They begin to speak in their own voice and it becomes clear when their dialogue rings true. Ellefson said she felt so strongly about the play taking on its own life that she wanted to give the writing credit to Virginia Anderson, her fictional protagonist.

Reichman, who plays Coleridge, is a playwright, as well as a director and actor. He wrote the play "Money," which just closed its premiere run in Anchorage last week and comes to Juneau this week for two shows. He said "Kubla Khan" is a charming and very seductive play.

"Merry is a very heartfelt person and her love of the romantic poets really originated this play," he said.

Ellefson called the play a multi-layered love story. Like Ellefson, Virginia is in love with Coleridge, his work and his brilliant mind. There's also love between Coleridge and his protg and collaborator Wordsworth, played by Ben Brown, and between Virginia and her friend Hartley, played by Paul Marshall.

Ellefson even created a character to embody Virginia's love for the poet. Fancy, played by Dawn Pisel-Davis, is a fairy-like spirit living in Virginia's imagination. She takes on different forms in the dream-play.

Coleridge's career spanned from about 1795 until his death at age 62 in 1834. For much of his life he was addicted to opium, and his famous poem, "Kubla Khan," was inspired by an opium-induced dream.

"There are a lot of things to chew on in this play," Ellefson said. "What is the role of drugs in artistry? What is a friend? What is the role of imagination in helping us work through painful things in our lives?"

In addition to poetry, Coleridge wrote essays and criticism. Ellefson said his lyrical ballads and his collaborations with Wordsworth revolutionized Western poetic thought.

"His essays cover everything from German philosophers, theory of nightmares, erogenous zones, educational theories and politics," she said.

"Lost in Kubla Khan" is not appropriate for children under 13 because of adult themes, language and drug use. It runs about 90 minutes and plays through May 19.

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