Perseverance Theatre faced several challenges in adapting “The Blue Bear” as a play. One was trying to convey the enormity of the Alaskan landscape and megafauna on a stage. How do you show a 30-foot boat caught in a bubble net with humpback whales rushing up from below? A calving glacier?
Then there’s the problem of telling a story that is 100 percent nonfiction. Lynn Schooler’s memoir of his time guiding photographer Michio Hoshino in southeast Alaska — hoping to see a rare glacier or “blue” bear — reveals no serious conflict between the two, the only characters seen on stage. It’s about communicating and gaining clarity rather than misunderstandings erupting into fist fights. The conflict is entirely within Schooler as he comes to terms with his life and attitude. That means the adaptors had to work without the playwright’s handiest tool, conjuring explosive friction that, usually, would not result in calamity in real life.
Most formidable, the play had to turn a literary meditation into a drama with action. “The Blue Bear,” the book, layers anecdotes of wilderness incidents, natural science and history with contemplation regarding the human heart. As prose, the author’s lyric and astute writing wrangles these elements into a cohesive narrative.
The play version treads close to the boundary where that cohesion might dissolve into a random assortment of verbal snapshots. That it manages to avoid the trap points to the skill of the adaptors — Luan Schooler, the author’s sister, and Leon Ingulsrud, who also directs the production — and to the fact that the book told a pretty good story.
The show leans heavily on the narrative voice of the book’s author, played by Ryan Conarro. His lines often seem like a series of monologues, a story teller commenting on himself. The character of Hoshino, played by Takahiro Yamamoto, doesn’t have half the lines of the Schooler character.
But his gentle and measured motions often required no words. A terse or even silent riposte to Schooler’s musings sometimes put the whole issue into quick focus.
One central scene has the two taking photos of a glacier. Schooler is shooting through rolls of film while Hoshino stands stock still next to his tripod, his face fixed on a piece of ice he’s hopes to catch as it falls. If it falls. The guide’s impatience is contrasted with the photographer’s famed ability to wait for precisely the right moment before clicking his shutter just once.
Hoshino is the catalyst that slowly draws Schooler into a broader acceptance of other people, himself, the vicissitudes of life, the connection between man and nature.
That’s a lot to get across in two hours of theater (no intermission). It’s one thing to explore the web of thoughts when they can be absorbed through being read leisurely, over time. While the play cuts much from the book, it could probably drop a bit more and still make the point.
What a play can do is make the point with an emotional edge not commonly experienced while reading a book. I attentively read and admired the book. It made me think. It didn’t mist my eyes or chuckle out loud. But there’s something about seeing a person physically fleshed out that creates a greater shock, release and empathy when the their feelings are relayed by a good actor.
The set consists of a wall of horizontal vanes on which different images are projected. Some are Hoshino’s photos. Some are videos. Some appear to be designs — a common one seeming to suggest a birch forest. A few times the actors moved behind them, visible and audible.
As a screen for projections and translations of Hoshino’s lines in Japanese, I found it a little hard to read. But it could be used very effectively, particularly when the description of a lynx vanishing into the forest was accompanied by images showing precisely that.
The stage contains two raised platforms with built in hatches from which various props are pulled and a couple of cubes. A number of white books are used to suggest, well, books and, in one poignant scene, the graves of interred Aleuts in Funtner Bay. Sound effects were few and a solo guitarist, Jason Shindle, added a little very subtle music from time to time.
The spare set seems to compliment the minimalist motion of the production. The richness of the photographs reflects the richness of the mind alert to its surroundings. The approach is unconventional, but the payoff comes. You just have to be patient enough to wait for it.
THE BLUE BEAR will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Feb. 18, with 4 p.m. matinees on Sunday, Feb. 12, and 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 18, in Sydney Laurence Theatre. Tickets, $23-$32 depending on the show, are available at centertix.net.
THE STATE OF THE ALASKA STAGE
Perseverance Theatre will host director Leon Ingulstrud and Teresa Eyring from the Theatre Communications Group in a conversation on the future of theater in Alaska at noon on Sunday, Feb. 12, in Sydney Laurence Theatre. The public is welcome to attend the free event.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.