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Physical theater with a spin

The first book Michael Fields read when he moved to remote Blue Lake in Northern California was "In the Land of the Grasshopper Song," an account of what happened when Mary Ellicott Arnold and Mabel Reed came from the East Coast in 1908 to do social work among the Karuk Tribe of Northern California. Fields, the artistic director of the Dell'Arte Company theater, was so taken with the story that he commissioned writer Lauren Wilson to adapt the book for the stage.

Dell'Arte will present "In the Land of the Grasshopper Song" at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 10-11, at Le Cirque Centre, 280 E. Hersey St., Suite 12, in Ashland. "It's about the convergence of cultures," Fields says in a phone interview.

Arnold and Reed spent two years as the only white women in the American Indian country of the Klamath and Salmon basins. The play records friendships and quarrels, celebrations and disasters, as the women travel by horseback and by foot, by dugout canoe and swinging bridge. They acted as teachers, doctors, preachers, legal advisers and mediators. And in the process they learned about love and honor, death and courage.

"They were supposed to civilize the Indians," Fields says. "Instead, the experience completely transformed them."

Both a theater and a theater school, Dell'Arte International is a center for the development, creation and performance of physical theater traditions. It takes its inspiration from the such forms as Commedia Dell'Arte, masks, clowns, melodrama and Vaudeville.

"It's the physical traditions with a contemporary spin," Fields says.

Founded in 1977, Dell'Arte creates about three productions a year, most of which wind up touring, some of them internationally. "Grasshopper Song" will play in Gold Beach in Oregon and later in San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Many of the theater's productions, like "Grasshopper Song," feature regional themes and a strong sense of place.

"The idea was to be in a rural area," Fields says.

The company's international training program offers a master's degree in ensemble-based physical theater. It hosts the Mad River Festival, an annual theater event, for a month beginning June 21 in Blue Lake.

Lorenzo SantaBarbara, of Ashland, had been a dancer for 30 years by the time he founded Le Cirque, a dance and circus school, a couple years ago. He saw the Dell'Arte troupe on a trip through Northern California.

"I laughed for two hours," he says. "I knew I had to get these people to Ashland."

"Grasshopper" is highly theatrical and filled with music, all of which is performed live.

"It's almost a musical," Fields says. "There's a lot of comedy and a lot of physicality."

Sets and props include a large rolling box with windows, a boat, a giant mobile and large fake horses.

"Things turn and move, and you're in one place and then another," Field says. "It's connected by the music. It's pretty visual, very fast-paced.

"I think it's one of our strongest pieces. It's like the old thing they say about theater: It'll make you laugh and make you cry."

Fields says the real Arnold and Reed returned to the East Coast and became Quakers and union organizers and started a food cooperative movement.

When Dell'Arte presented the play in Weed a few years ago, descendants of the American Indians in the play attended.

"They loved it," Fields says. "It was a 500-seat audience. It's about their part of the world."

Fields says "Grasshopper," like most Dell'Arte productions, is family fare, and he encourages people to bring the kids.

"Both adults and kids can get something out of it," he says.

"In the Land of the Grasshopper Song" features Dell'Arte Company performers Dawn Falato, Tim Cunningham, Tyler Olsen and Oliver Steck along with Dell'Arte instructor and performer Jacqueline Dandeneau. Set design is by Dan Stockwell, costume design by Lynnie Horrigan, sound and music by Tim Gray. For more, visit www.dellarte.com.

Tickets cost $15 for general seating and $10 for pillow seating. Tickets are available at Tree House Books and the Music Coop in Ashland, or at the door. Call 301-6804. Le Cirque holds fewer than 100 persons, and tickets are expected to sell out quickly.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or bvarble@mailtribune.com.

“In the Land of the Grasshopper Song,” an account of what happened when Mary Ellicott Arnold and Mabel Reed came Northern California in 1908 to do social work among the Karuk Tribe, is the story of two converging cultures. - The Dell'Arte Company