It’s a tried and true trope — a sea monster destroys a young woman’s village, so with guidance from a talking wolf and spectral legend, she navigates the fallout of the end of her world.
OK, the synopsis of Perseverance Theatre’s 41st season-opener, “Devilfish,” might sound fairly different from a typical Juneau theater production. But the show’s playwright, Vera Starbard, said it’s a story with roots that stretch further back than the history of professional theater and many times older than theater in Juneau.
Starbard, who is Tlingit, told the Capital City Weekly that Alaska Native stories about devilfish — octopus — have been around for thousands of years but now those concepts are making their way to a new venue and audience.
“What’s new about this piece is Perseverance Theatre,” said Starbard, who worked for years to craft the “Devilfish” story into a producible play. “Most of this art, the dance, the music, the mask, the items that we will be using, the storytelling, we’ve been doing for thousands of years. It’s a continuation of a tradition that the colonizers tried to kill but were not successful.”
Much of the “Devilfish” cast and crew are of Alaska Native or Native American descent, and the heavy indigenous involvement is a point of pride for Starbard. Alaska Native artists, including Tsimshian carver Abel Ryan, contributed pieces that will serve as props during the show.
“When we opened up our first rehearsal, naturally we do introductions, and every single one of the Native indigenous artists introduced themselves in their language,” said Leslie Ishii, director for “Devilfish” and interim artistic director for Perseverance Theatre, in an interview. “That alone was so powerful, especially in the professional theater where for so long, English has been the only real accepted language, to the point where if you don’t speak English ‘well’ you’re not a good actor.”
“Vera’s play is really opening up the field to the inclusion of culture and art that, like she said, has been there for thousands of years,” she added. “We’re changing the standard. We’re changing what excellence means.”
The indigenous influence will extend to the play’s opening night, which will include a red-carpet event, Native art tables, gallery walk and some things organizers asked to be kept under wraps.
“There is absolutely no better place to premiere this play,” Starbard said. “I want this community specifically to see this play and love it.”
Getting the place, time and timing right
While Starbard said “Devilfish” is in many ways a love letter to Tlingit people and their culture, the characters in the play are specifically not Tlingit. “Devilfish” is set in a prehistoric Southeast Alaska when Eagle and Raven were separate peoples rather than complementary opposites in a larger culture.
That created some extra work for cast, crew and Alaska Native artists since the characters, artwork and culture depicted in the play are essentially pre-Tlingit. Starbard said that means things were made to be recognizable to Southeast Alaskans without being a perfect match for existing traditions or works.
For example, paddles and masks featured in the show will look close to Tlingit paddles and masks but were made to appear slightly different from crafts carvers would make today.
The pre-moiety concept also posed a challenge for choreographers Lyle and Kolene James, Starbard said since corresponding opposites help dictate the order in which events, such as weddings, happen.
The play’s ambition was also an obstacle. “Devilfish” is adapted from a longer, yet-unpublished book Starbard finished almost a decade ago.
She said it took about three years to create a stage show out of the material and a lot of editing to get the show down to two acts with a “running time” of about two hours and 20 minutes. Starbard said it initially clocked in at about six hours.
Starbard said former Perseverance Theatre artistic director Art Rotch, who is lighting designer for the play, was an early believer in Perseverance Theatre’s ability to bring the piece to the stage.
A prehistoric setting that’s home to dire wolves and other beasts took careful consideration to construct.
Ishii said a willingness to check practicality at the door in favor of passion is something she considers a positive trait of younger playwrights.
“They don’t hold back on the vision of the play,” Ishii said. “It’s making theater really exciting.”
Starbard said sometimes they turned to old ways when bringing “Devilfish” to life — especially when depicting the titular sea monster.
“We talked about special effects, we talked about shadows, we talked about the noise, and we were sort of thinking about these huge technological things,” Starbard said. “Ultimately, it got solved when our traditional Tlingit choreographers came in and went back to what would Tlingit people have done that long ago and turned into a dance with masks and dance paddles. We solved the whole thing with traditional Tlingit performing arts methods.”
While Aanteinatu (Erin Tripp) endures trauma in “Devilfish,” Starbard said the material is family friendly, and fights, dancing and lessons should be frequent enough to hold the attention of audience members over the age of 10.
“It’s centered around teaching, and you’ll see the characters teach,” Starbard said. “It would have been an educational story back in the day.”
Know & Go
When: Sept. 2o-Oct.12, Thursdays through Sundays. Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows are at 7:30 p.m. Sunday shows are at 4 p.m. There are shows at both 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12.
Where: Perseverance Theatre, 914 3rd St., Douglas.
Admission: Tickets cost between $35 and $45. They can be purchased online at ptalaska.org or by calling 463-8497. If shows are not sold out, there are $15 rush tickets available 30 minutes before curtain.
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.