Of masks & merchants

Annual summer performances gear up

Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2002

Like the clap of hands, a count sounds across Perseverance Theatre's main stage.

"And one ... and two ... and three ..."

With each beat, a child enters, moving slowly, exploring the planes of the stage, climbing, ducking and peering before slowly flitting away into the wings.

"Any time you can create larger distances, any time you can create an extreme space, the better," instructs Darius Mannino, acting and marketing director for Perseverance.

Learning how to fill the expanse of a stage with movement is just one of the lessons taught at Perseverance's annual summer camp, the Summer Theatre Arts Rendezvous, known as STAR.

In two widely divergent shows, Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" and the original work "Entropic Discombobulation," students will tackle tasks from iambic pentameter to mask work.

They'll also explore the changed world that exists in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

"I've chosen a very powerful, controversial play," said Nancy Buttenheim, director of "The Merchant of Venice." "I think in many ways 9-11 was the reason. I wanted to do a play that would reflect how we can be hurtful to people and ... what happens when we are merciful and forgive one another, and what happens when we aren't that way."

"Merchant" marks Buttenheim's third year directing Shakespeare productions through STAR. As in previous performances, she has double- and triple-cast several of the roles, taking full advantage of her 24 young actors.

This year, she's put a special emphasis on the different themes of the play, Buttenheim said. Issues of prejudice figure prominently in the plot, as does the location - Italy - and Judaism, the religion of several major characters. The students have discussed and dealt with all three.

"We've had some incredible talks together as a theater company about the whole thing," Buttenheim said. "I've had them look at what they've seen in their lives about people treating each other well and people treating each other badly, and also how they have treated kids at school, kids who are different."

"Entropic Discombobulation" also touches on issues raised by Sept. 11, albeit a bit more obliquely. Last year, director Roblin Gray Davis saw a documentary on the lives of Afghani women and decided to integrate mask work involving burkhas into his physical theater extravaganza.

"The imagery from that just impacted me so much," Davis said. "I said, 'Wow, that's a very ghostly, beautiful, strange image,' and that was the seed for it. I thought what an appropriate time maybe to expose kids as well, even if it's just a hint of Islamic culture."

The title of Davis' show comes from a variety of ideas about the universe and physics. It's written by the 16 students in the workshop, who will blend their own words with those from previously existing sources.

They've also made their own masks, beginning with plaster casts of their faces and adapting them to a variety of sizes and techniques.

"Sometimes it gets hard to breathe, but we have nose holes," said Paul Christian, 11. "It's just interesting, having the theater experience. I think it's fun."

Despite the serious theme of "Merchant," Buttenheim said it also has its share of laugh-out-loud moments.

"I'm just doubled over in hysteria watching these kids," she said. "They're wonderful. I feel so blessed this year with my class."

Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at geneviev@juneauempire.com.

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