Contorted bodies litter the floor, all baying and groaning peculiar sounds. Faces peek out from behind kneecaps and mouths work in frenzied, mute motion as heads loll back and forth. It looks like a loony bin fieldtrip to the beach or a gathering of disturbed seals. In truth, it's theater.
The crazies (actors) have come together for a dance rehearsal of a musical about a pair of medieval lovers called Aucassin and Nicolette. The creative forces responsible for bringing this play to the stage are conspiring under the name of Red Thread Collective, the Santa Fe theatrical company that has been bringing new works to the City Different since 2001. Originally formed by playwright Craig Barnes and producer Walter Dilts to provide a vessel through which Barnes's play, Queen Elizabeth I could be realized onstage, the Red Thread Collective has had numerous successes over the past four years, including another Barnes work, King's Yellow.
Though not entirely new, the Santa Fe premiere of Aucassin and Nicolette is a rebirth for the play that first debuted in Los Angeles in 1977. Based on a medieval French chantefable, Aucassin and Nicolette was originally the creation of composer Stephen Downs and the Company Theater of Los Angeles. On the left coast, with its California roots showing, Aucassin and Nicolette was musical theater at its best. Fleshed out by the acting ensemble and orchestra members from a mere skeleton of lyrics and Downs' unscripted guitar accompaniment, the Company Theater created a vibrant work that was all their own. It ran for two years in LA. By the time it reached Broadway, the story of two star-crossed medieval lovers had been streamlined, star-saddled and renamed Festival!, all to the general detriment of the work.
So, 28 years later, the Red Thread Collective is aiming to recapture the original spirit of the piece. Stephen Downs and his wife Toni have agreed to re-visit the musical and the folks at the Red Thread Collective are unpacking it and rebuilding the show from the ground up.
"There are places in the script where the actual drama has been avoided," says veteran Santa Fe actress Ursula Drabik (Nicolette's mother and Ensemble), clad in a green leotard and speaking with no hint of irony. The actress's remark is met with approval by her comrades and ideas are pitched and volleyed forth through a maze of tangents. This is one of those rehearsals when the virtues of ensemble collaboration is most evident. The company works through the weak points in the script by improvising certain scenes, inventing subtext and even adjusting dialogue.
"It grew from the bottom up with an ensemble company, so it belonged to those people," says Tone Forrest, executive director of Red Thread Collective. He's referring to the original production of Aucassin and Nicolette that he was a part of in the 1970s. In fact, it was Forrest's idea to take on this piece in the first place. "Everybody forgot about it beside me. I've been carrying it around in my heart and my head since 1975." But Aucassin and Nicolette had to have the right setting and the right group of people to commit to building a play from the bottom up, not a cast who wanted to sit back, learn their lines and perform Festival!
Red Thread has certainly found a dedicated collective in its current cast. Consisting of 10 people who play 64 characters, the cast contains a range of special talents and levels of experience. From seasoned pros to those still moist behind the ears, the patchwork cast of actors, singers and dancers works energetically and well with one another. Certainly musical director Catherine Donovan is evidence of the company's dedication; not only did she transcribe and arrange all the music for the show and rehearse all the vocal numbers with the cast, she also took over the role of the Queen of Torelore on decidedly short notice, joining in the kick line with ease.
The magnet that keeps the team together, director Kent Kirkpatrick, is also the force that attracted many of the varied players. "Kent was open to suggestions," says Acushla Bastible, one of the founding members of Dublin's Angel Exit Theater and a member of Aucassin and Nicolette's Ensemble.
Kent Kirkpatrick has worked in Santa Fe for nine years as an actor and director, most recently directing Sam Shepard's Fool For Love for Ironweed Productions. He looks like a taller, gentler Kevin Spacey and guides his cast gingerly by knowing when to just get out of their way.
When asked why he bothered to mount Aucassin and Nicolette, Kirkpatrick replies, "What's good is good." It's at least a good time. There are pirates, gypsies and all manner of swashbuckling medieval types wearing bright colors and singing at the top of their lungs. ***image3***Even though the story is a simple one, the ensemble effectively casts the saga of warring families, star-crossed lovers and coming of age in a light that allows access to the depths within such age-old scenarios. True to the chantefable format, in between the dialogue are set sections of poetic commentary put to music, but don't let that scare you. These make for some of the loveliest musical moments the show has to offer.
The score isn't ground-breaking or even really contemporary. In fact, only Santa Fe singing sensation Madi Sato's (Nicolette) soaring R&B vocal style gives Aucassin and Nicolette any sort of 21st century feel. But the tunes are solid and catchy and I even remember some of the words to the song of the Queen of Torelore (Catherine Donovan), the ruler of a country of warrior women who fight like Amazons and dance like Cossacks. In fact, the number is so much fun that the cast hardly noticed the man who stumbled into the rehearsal hall smelling like a Kennedy funeral and asking to join in the dance. Director Kent Kirkpatrick politely asked the gentleman to leave and the cast carried on with their Jerry Herman-esque show-stopper.
In a town renowned for its enthusiasm for the arts, theater suffers like the red-headed stepchild of all the visual and musical riches Santa Fe has to offer. Tone Forrest agrees that the best way to promote theater in Santa Fe is not only to produce high quality plays, but to present works that can't be seen anywhere else. "Santa Fe is not New York, Chicago or LA. Let's face it, it's not even Pittsburgh," says Forrest. Still, he argues that this town has the talent and the tourism to make it a great place to do theater, maintaining those who claim Santa Fe has a limited theatrical talent pool are just not looking. "They're here," he says, "and the fact that they're not working says more about the theater than the talent."
This summer's production of Aucassin and Nicolette hopes to provide a shot in the arm for the wilting stages of the City Different. Yes, you will be seeing a musical that is straightforward and suitable for the entire family. Yes, the themes are universal and unthreatening. Madi Sato could be issuing press releases from Disney when she says, "It's a timeless tale of love and discovering who you are." But this is also a story that belongs part and parcel to every member of the Red Thread Collective, and their love and commitment to this story is what makes theater unique. The cast is eager to communicate their passion to the audience, individually, person to person, aura to aura. And you ain't gonna get that from Cinderella Man.