“Whale Song” sounds utterly confounding at first.
Perseverance Theatre’s latest offering tells a story set in the not-too-distant future about a young Inupiat women destined by prophecy to unite people and bowhead whales through marriage to a whale.
However, the two-act play written by Inupiat playwright Cathy Tagnak Rexford uses the far-out concept to show characters grappling with societal expectations, anxiety, pressure and overcoming adversity.
“It’s really relatable in a way,” said Erin Tripp, who portrays the prophetic Ani.
Madeline Sayet, the play’s director, said “Whale Song,” also tweaks the trope of star-crossed lovers and tells the story of a hero’s journey with a headstrong female protagonist.
“It’s like reverse ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” Sayet said. “Their families want them to get married, and they don’t want to.”
The mythic premise is a platform to show people and whales wrestling under the realistic weight of the responsibility of what they are expected to become.
“There’s a sense throughout it that it’s more about being caught and trying to fight your destiny,” Sayet said. “Everything is a little abstract. Nothing is super literal.”
“Whale Song,” which opens Feb. 1, is a distinctly indigenous production.
It was written by an Alaska Native, includes a diverse cast and is directed by Sayet, who is a member of the Mohegan Tribe.
The Mohegan tribe is a federally recognized tribe with a reservation in Connecticut.
Frank Katasse, a Tlingit actor who plays Jack in “Whale Song,” said Alaska Native plays are a rarity, and he is glad “Whale Song” exists to offer well-written parts to Native actors.
“They say you’re walking in two worlds as an Alaska Native, and this play explores that,” Katasse said.
Whale of a story
The whales in the play are meant to be actual, living-in-the-water, zooplankton-eating whales, but they are portrayed by people as a community with a give-take relationship with the indigenous humans in the Arctic.
“The thing that’s really cool is the whales and the people are depicted as two nations rather than two species,” Sayet said.
The cetacean nature of the whales is communicated through actors’ body language and staging.
“A lot of the physical vocabulary we made in the rehearsal process,” said Hali Duran, choreographer for “Whale Song.” “The whales have this round vocabulary, and the humans have a pedestrian vocabulary.”
That means actors portraying whales move with an implied rotund buoyancy while humans are angular and hyper aware of their extremities.
“Using elements and imagery has been a really big part of the process,” Duran said.
Ty Yamaoka, a Juneau actor who plays a level-headed whale Nukaaluk in “Whale Song,” said he focuses on taking deep breaths with his chest while in character and shared some other aspects of playing a whale.
“Everything is really rounded,” Yamaoka said. “We try to keep angles out of our bodies.”
The fluid motions were on full display during a rehearsal that featured a pod making its entrance amid group vocalizations.
Tai Yen Kim, an Anchorage-based actor who plays Agviq, the whale expected to be a groom, said it’s the first time he’s played a whale.
“I’ve played a goose before,” Kim said. That was for a production of “Charlotte’s Web.”
A lot of newness
“Whale Song’s” cast and crew said it’s been fun to be involved in a play’s debut.
Duran said it’s fair to compare the experience to playing in a sandbox.
“It’s been really fun to watch this play grow,” Katasse said. “You’re inventing so much through this. You have these character ideas you have to get through on stage.”
Katasse said he’s seen the play change into what it’s become over the course of multiple workshops. Rexford is a Los Angeles-based member of the Perseverance Playwright’s Circle.
This is the second world premiere for Perseverance Theatre’s 40th season. The first was the time-jumping, odd couple adventure “Franklin.”
“Whale Song’s” actors and director heaped praise on Rexford’s inventive, poetic and thoughtful writing.
“I love it,” said Erika Stone, who plays a midwife in “Whale Song.” “There are times I’m on stage, and I have to fight back tears because it’s so moving.”
However, Sayet said “Whale Song” isn’t overly ponderous or self-serious.
“There’s humor wound around all of it,” Sayet said.
However, it is a play that can make people think. Erin Tripp, who plays Ani, said the human-whale dynamic is a reminder humans aren’t the only species on the planet.
“It got me thinking about the animals I share the world with,” she said.
Know & Go
What: “Whale Song”
When: There are previews 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29 and Thursday, Jan. 31. “Whale Song” opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 1. It will then be shown 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday through Feb. 23 and at 4 p.m. on Sundays. On Feb. 23, there will also be an early 2 p.m. show. There will be a special Wednesday, Feb. 20 arts night show with a post-show discussion.
Where: Perseverance Theatre, 914 3rd St., Douglas
Admission: Single tickets for Thursday and Sunday shows cost $30, $25 for military and seniors and $15 for students. Friday tickets cost $37, $32 and $20. Saturday tickets cost $39, $34 and $21. The previews are pay as you can. There will also be pay-as-you-can performances Sunday, Feb. 3 and Thursday, Feb. 7.
Tickets can be purchased online at ptalaska.org or by calling 463-8497.
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenHohenstatt.