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Berkeley Daily Planet, August 4, 2006


Theater: The End of the World Comes to John Hinkle Park

-- By Ken Bullock

“You gouge out an eye for keener sight. Is blindness vision?”

—Frigge to Odin

In a landscape of gray granite slabs and boulders, in front of a primitive structure with massive stone lintel-like dolmens, at the foot of the stony amphitheater of John Hinkel Park, a troupe of players open their trunk of masks and costumery to reenact the End of the World: Ragnarok: The Doom of the Gods, Shotgun Players’ free offering to a summer day.

The End has happened before, and will again, but not just as repertory theater. The Players break up the mythic action by musing on the meaning of what they act out (presumably before some mead-soaked audience of Viking vassals and their liege lord, as much as the Berkeley picnickers sprawled in the leafy shadows of the hillside): “We tell the stories the Norse cook up; we can’t change them ... These are gods. There’s nothing funny about gods. They’d as soon kill you as look at you ... Hope at the end? This is the End of the World, but look at the bright side?” And Snorri (after the skald, Snorri Sturlesson?), head of the troupe (played by Ryan O’Donnell), reassures Helga (Erin Carter), his pregnant wife: “We’re not in it.” “Are you sure?” she counters.

The ensemble of ten pulls out the stops to tell the story of the pagan gods awaiting their long-heralded doom, running through the changes of a variety of modes: “Presentational Theater,” Physical Theater, storytelling, a kind of pageantry, song, dance, and very impressive puppets for Loki’s monstrous brood which make brief but effective appearances. This isn’t Wagner’s Gotterdamerung, but something more intimate, to be told in a wintery hall at a feast, or in a summer glen, to kill time. The gods prove to be the ultimate party animals, killing time (and a few Strange Ones along the way) engagingly, as they slip ever nearer the awaited brink.

There are all the episodes familiar to anyone who ever browsed a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology as a kid. Thor (Nikolai Lokteff) and the always suspect halfbreed (part god, part Primal shape-shifter) Loki (a particularly effective Ben Dziuba) go spying on those Funny Ones, the Primals (aka Strange Ones, Fierce Ones, Frost Giants, etc.) under the pretext of a social call, only to be asked to join in the fun-and-games and losing. Thor is unable to down a horn in a drinking bout. It turns out to be the ocean.

“I thought it was lousy beer!” he blurts out. Swift Loki is unable to leave the racing blocks before his effete opponent holds up the token of victory—his opponent is Thought, faster than motion itself. Mighty Thor is wrestled to a draw by an aged crone (Old Age herself, who is beaten by no one) played by Rebecca Noon.

Thor also shows up in drag as a bride, his bristly beard veiled, disguised as beautiful Freya (a charming Jessica Kitchens), as blackmail for his stolen hammer. When it’s returned as the bride-price, he takes the wedding party over the top with it, as surely as disguised Ulysses dealt with Penelope’s suitors.

But it’s not all fun and games, or shock-and-awe from life-size, animated action figures. There’s the death of Baldur (Danny Webber), the beloved god of light. It seems nothing can kill him ... except a sprig of mistletoe shot to his heart. “I’ve lost my son. Tell me how to grieve!” shouts Odin the All-Knowing (Roham Shaikhani).
And underpinning it all is a very topical anxiety: security, the trade-off between Love and safety emphasized over and over. Is the return of Thor’s hammer worth the loss of the goddess of Love as a hostage bride? Or is the building of unbreachable walls for their haven, Asgard (or, as the red-nosed Funny One with the hardhat, Darren Blaney, calls it in Texan, “Ass-Gard”), an exchange for Freya, who makes life worth living, who is in fact the wellspring and continuity of life itself?

The playwrights of this original production, Conrad Bishop (who also directed—and very well) and Elizabeth Fuller (a fine Frigge) explain the anachronisms in the program notes thus: “We look at the past—whether we call it history or myth—in the way we look at a pond’s surface, seeing a few things beneath the water but struck most strongly by our own reflection. And as any politician knows, the past becomes the story we tell about it. More dangerously, we become the story we tell about it.”

This post-Christian, secular Humanist-ized treatment of myth veers back and forth between the irony of Plato and the burlesque of a Fractured Fairy Tales cartoon.
It ends with a round dance, Loki in the middle, representing the long-awaited disaster, heralded by a bugler (no archangel) who complains he’s never blown the thing. And it does end on a note of hope—life goes on, the unborn baby kicking, a slip from Yggdrasil, the World Tree, potted up.

And the show goes on, too, weekends till Sept. 10.

It’s one of the things Shotgun does best; you don’t have to wait till the end of the world to enjoy yourself.

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