Last winter, Juneau screenwriter David Hunsaker sat down to read Betsy Hearne's "Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale," retellings of the classic motif collected from various cultures.
He was intrigued by three common themes: the presence of cross-cultural love affairs, the power of love and patience to tame the beast, and the vilification of the unknown.
It proved to be fertile ground for a script. Hunsaker's new play, "Three-Way River," combines three myths: Appalachia's "Whitebear Whittington," Russia's "The Glass Mountain" and the Tlingit story of "The Woman Who Married a Bear." All three are merged with the Beauty and Beast motif.
"Three-Way River" will commemorate the University of Alaska Southeast's new Noyes Pavilion with 8 p.m. shows Friday, July 25, Saturday, July 26, Thursday, July 31, Friday, Aug. 1, and Saturday, Aug. 2. The pavilion is a roofed theater designed for open-air productions. The pavilion currently seats up to 160 people.
"All of these stories were told to girls as ways of preparing them for future marriage and cohabitation with men," Hunsaker said. "The beast being that men are big and hairy and scary and loud. The gist of the story seems to be that with enough love and patience you can tame the beast, and there's something you can come to love."
The beast is a bear in Hunsaker's Appalachian and Tlingit adaptations. In the Russian story, it's a dragon.
"What I like is the three parallels between the three stories," said Gene Tagaban, who plays all three beasts. "It's bridging people, bridging cultures. We all have the same stories. We all basically come from the same place. We all tell the same thing with our stories."
Hunsaker assembled an eight-person ensemble for his cast. Most have never acted with each other, but all are recognizable in Juneau art circles. The production also includes a live band to help with the transitions from one culture to the next.
Erik Chadwell plays banjo, Martha DeFreest plays violin and Hunsaker plays the cittern, a 15th century bowl-shaped guitar. Music director Bob Banghart wrote about a dozen original songs.
"I knew I wanted music in the play," Hunsaker said. "With the style that we're doing this in, which is broad storytelling in three different styles, I thought it would be interesting to have three kinds of music."
"It's great to have a little music in the theater," said Ish Hope, who plays a dog, Old Blue, another dog, S'ukkoox'aakw, and a horse, Excelsior. "I was told one time that you treat the music like it's another member of the cast. And maybe it's the strongest member with the songs and dances that connect us to the three different cultures."
With an ensemble cast, and an unfinished, untested and sometimes noisy, open-air space at the Noyes Pavilion, rehearsals have turned into collaboration.
"It's become sort of a community project," said Jason Alexander, a patriarchal chanter character in two of the stories.
"Usually, songs are written out on the page and you sing it and interpret it," he said. "For this, the music fluctuates. Harmonies are made up on the spot. With the chanting part that I do, Dave and I sat down and made that up. It's all been a challenge to my creative process, which is not what I expected when I came here."
The acting itself is a challenge. The story jumps from myth to myth, at times with little warning. It's up to the actors to convincingly switch character.
"We don't have costume changes," said Alanna Malone, who plays Beauty Girl, Sockeye Woman and Nastasya of the Golden Braid. "Our transitions are just music or movement. When you go from one story to the other you're changing your physicality, your voice, your tempo, your center. I try to pick out different things to work on in the character. How they walk, how their feet meet the earth and what their breathing might be."
Hunsaker has written a play every year for the Middlebury (Vt.) College Bread Loaf School of English since the summer graduate program began visiting Juneau five years ago. Bread Loaf pays some money for the creation and production of the plays, but the students are not involved.
All five plays have been based on cross-cultural stories. In 1999, Theater in the Rough staged "Prospero and the Killer Whale," a story Hunsaker wrote based on Tlingit legend and Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Last year, he directed "To Reign in Hell," a one-woman show and comparison of Hebrew mythology's Lilith, the Greek's Persephone and the Inuit's Sedna.
Hunsaker was inspired by "Beauty and the Beast ..." author Hearn when he wrote "Three-Way River," but he was also influenced by Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon," a 1951 film that portrays a murder from four points of view.
"This year I wanted to try something that was on a bigger scale for this new pavilion," Hunsaker said. "I wanted to try and get something that reflected the cultures that have come together to form Juneau."
"In all three of these stories, the plots are almost identical, but there seems to be a cultural bias toward one character in each telling of the story. I thought that was significant, but people have to draw their own conclusions. The audience is going to have to work a little bit."