Tradition behind a mask

Breadloaf play at UAS looks at Greek legends through Yupik eyes

Posted: Thursday, July 19, 2001

Their love crossed cultures, destroyed kings and ultimately, their own chance for happiness.

The doomed romance of Jason and Medea is brought to life in the Breadloaf Institute and the University of Alaska Southeast's production of Dave Hunsaker's new play, "Jason and Medea," which premieres tonight at 8 p.m. at the UAS outdoor amphitheater, located above the campus parking lot. Performances continue on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

The production is the third summer play sponsored by UAS and Breadloaf, a Middlebury College graduate school of English. Hunsaker, who plays Jason, also penned the first two plays - "Prospero and the Killer Whales" and "Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea" - and appeared as a musician in "Cuchulain."

Each of the plays has given a traditional theatrical concept a twist. "Prospero" combined Shakespeare with Tlingit myth, and "Cuchulain" melded the work of Irish poet William Butler Yeats with kabuki, a traditional Japanese theater style.

The story of "Jason and Medea" closely follows the Greek legends of Euripides' "Medea" and Apollonius Rodos' "The Argonautica." However, several segments of the tale are told through a traditional Yupik mask technique in which a single actor plays several parts by moving from stationary mask to stationary mask.

"Part of the deal is we're doing cross-cultural theatrical interpretations," Hunsaker said. "It's kind of gone full circle from 'Yupik Antigone' I did many years ago."

Kim Gillingham, an actress from Los Angeles, plays Medea. She appeared in one of Hunsaker's plays, "Devil's Canyon," in 1992, and the two have kept in touch ever since.

"I've been waiting and waiting for an opportunity to work with him," Gillingham said. "I was so glad for the opportunity to work with the masks and the Yupik dance style that Dave knows and works with."

In one scene, Gillingham moves from mask to mask, her body language and movements shifting as she inhabits three goddess figures the mother, the maiden and the nymph. The Greeks would recast them as vengeful Hera, the virginal Athena and the pleasure-seeking Aphrodite.

"What we've discovered as we worked is the difference between masculine and feminine takes on the world," Hunsaker said. "That ends up playing well into our story because it ends up being the tragic thing that destroys their marriage."

Jason and his fellow Argonauts encounter Medea during Jason's quest for the golden fleece. She and Jason fall in love, and Medea betrays her family to help Jason in his search. They endure many adventures together, but as Jason puts it, "savage love leads to savage hate," and the play ends in tragedy.

Hunsaker, Gillingham, and four musicians have been rehearsing since July 4. Shar Fox and Dale McFarlin provide percussion, Andrea Mogil plays flute and Marta Ann Lastufka sings and plays the harmonium.

"One or two pieces are more familiar folk songs ... (but) Marta is improvising most of it," Hunsaker said.

Rehearsals can last over eight hours a day, Gillingham said, and the actors work without a director.

"It's pretty intense," she said. "I love working with Dave. He's got the same sort of nonlinear, stream of consciousness approach to rehearsal that I do."

Hunsaker agreed.

"I've been likening it to more like playing jazz as opposed to a conductor in a band or orchestra," he said. "We're certainly going off a script but there have been lots of changes."

The outdoor setting has also enhanced the mood of the play, which includes torches, a fire pit and scenes in which objects are literally buried in the earth. Hunsaker said an additional, late-night show is still a possibility.

"It would really be stunning at night," he said.

There are downsides.

"We're running around in little gauzy Greek robes," Hunsaker said with a laugh. "By Saturday night we'll be covered in white socks welts."

Audience members should bring bug repellent and cushions to the outdoor theater. Admission is free.

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