Erin Tripp, right, playing Aanteinatu, rehearses with Rio Alberto, playing a magical wolf, in Perseverance Theatre’s production of “Devilfish” written by Vera Starbard on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Erin Tripp, right, playing Aanteinatu, rehearses with Rio Alberto, playing a magical wolf, in Perseverance Theatre’s production of “Devilfish” written by Vera Starbard on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

‘Devilfish’ opens Perseverance Theatre’s season with an original, indigenous vision

New play draws from traditional stories, Native arts

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.”

Emily Sera, playing Koontz, left, and Erin Tripp, playing Aanteinatu, rehearse in Perseverance Theatre’s production of “Devilfish” written by Vera Starbard on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Emily Sera, playing Koontz, left, and Erin Tripp, playing Aanteinatu, rehearse in Perseverance Theatre’s production of “Devilfish” written by Vera Starbard on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

[Playwright wants to spread healing around Southeast Alaska]

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.”

Director Leslie Ishii, right, works with actress Jennifer Bobiwash during Perseverance Theatre’s production of “Devilfish” written by Vera Starbard on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Director Leslie Ishii, right, works with actress Jennifer Bobiwash during Perseverance Theatre’s production of “Devilfish” written by Vera Starbard on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

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.

[Photos: A behind-the-scenes look at “Devilfish”]

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.

[Concerts bring music by women out of the shadows]

The play’s ambition was also an obstacle. “Devilfish” is adapted from a longer, yet-unpublished book Starbard finished almost a decade ago.

Allison Hicks, top, playing Fog Woman, as Erin Tripp, playing Aanteinatu, rehearse in Perseverance Theatre’s production of “Devilfish” written by Vera Starbard on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Allison Hicks, top, playing Fog Woman, as Erin Tripp, playing Aanteinatu, rehearse in Perseverance Theatre’s production of “Devilfish” written by Vera Starbard on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

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

What: “Devilfish”

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 bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.


More in News

A Princess Cruise Line ship is docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the week of Aug. 7

Here’s what to expect this week.

(Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Ice fog, a phrase in Russell Tabbert’s Dictionary of Alaskan English, is not uttered in many other places because to form it takes a sustained temperature of minus 35 F. (Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell)
Alaska Science Forum: Alaska lexicon sinks in over the years

When my little Ford pickup chugged into Alaska 36 years ago this… Continue reading

Mimi Israelah, center, cheers for Donald Trump inside the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska, during a rally Saturday July 9, 2022. Two Anchorage police officers violated department policy during a traffic stop last month when Israelah, in town for a rally by former President Donald Trump showed a "white privilege card" instead of a driver's license and was not ticketed. (Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News)
Alaska officers violated policy in ‘white privilege’ stop

It’s unclear what policy was violated or what disciplinary actions the two officers faced.

(Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Capital City Fire/Rescue vehicles form a line at Juneau International Airport for a drill. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Women arrested after Monday morning structure fire

Arrest does not appear related to two other recent fires, per fire marshal.

(Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Keke Tian Ke is the featured artist for the month of August at the Juneau Artists Gallery. Her new works on display are an exploration of the landscapes and natural wonders Juneau has to offer. She’ll be at the First Friday event on Aug. 5 from 4:30 to 8 p.m. on the ground floor of the Senate Building, 175 South Franklin.
Here’s what’s happening for First Friday

Keke Tian Ke featured artist for August at Juneau Artists Gallery

Select North Douglas residents are expected to experience an emergency water line shut down Thursday.
Some North Douglas residents set to experience emergency water line shutdown Thursday

The line shut down will occur between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Thursday.

Most Read