The governing strategy is simple: "War 'til the end
of time." The leader, a decider, grasps false intelligence
and spreads fear of an evil enemy set on destroying our way of life.
The worse things get, the more the governing body sticks to its
set path. "Only war," the military chief declares, "brings
Any perceived parallels with current events are clearly intentional
in "Ragnarok: The Doom of the Gods," the Shotgun Players'
annual free outdoor show which opened Saturday in Berkeley's John
Hinkel Park. The play by Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller, a world
premiere, may be a retelling of the fundamental narrative of ancient
Norse and Germanic mythology, but it's studded with references to
homeland security, oil politics, global warming, suicide bombers,
AIDS, genocide in Darfur and other modern matters.
As the treacherous trickster Loki tells the audience, in reference
to the primary symbol of mythic military might, "You own Thor's
hammer. You paid billions of dollars for it. You hammer down whole
nations with it."
Current end-time mythology notwithstanding, the contemporary significance
of the tale cuts no deeper than its most obvious applications. While
those are evocative enough, and the stories from the ancient Norse
Eddas have entertained countless generations, "Ragnarok"
is only fitfully effective as either a retelling of the old tales
or as a play on its own merits.
A collaboration between Shotgun and Bishop and Fuller's Independent
Eye -- a roving company, now based in Sebastopol, with a long history
of working with other groups (and doing the "Hitchhiking Off
the Map" series for KPFA) -- "Ragnarok" spans different
eras. It's the story, as its name indicates, of the final battle
between the gods, or Aesir, and the more ancient race of giants
(here called Primals), in which the primeval world and all-encompassing
tree of life, Yggdrasill, were destroyed. Unlike the Christian Armageddon,
it's an end of the world long past, from which life as we know it
Bishop and Fuller frame the tale as a play put on by ragged, desperate,
late medieval Norwegian wandering players at the behest of an earl
who's trying to stave off Christian incursions on the old faith.
Snorri (Ryan O'Donnell) and Helga (Erin Carter) recruit an ignorant
fisherman, Bjorn (Darren Blaney), to fill out their cast, with the
idea that the three of them will play all the roles. They don't,
but just about everybody in the 10-person cast plays many parts.
As they begin teaching Bjorn the scenes, the other actors appear
and perform the play in colorful flowing robes (by Christine Crook)
and expressively contorted masks by Michael Frassinelli, who also
designed the stone-circle-and-monoliths set.
In some respects, "Ragnarok" is a kind of Edda top hits.
Many of the best-known and most entertaining tales are covered --
some quite well, others in such hasty and poorly articulated tellings
that only those who already know them are likely to understand.
As staged by Bishop, with sometimes beguiling but raggedly performed
choral song-chants by Fuller, "Ragnarok" seesaws between
striking and amateurish scenes in a ragtag combination of acting
styles and levels of execution.
It's often at its best in the scenes involving the actors supposedly
performing the play, particularly in Carter's sharply focused portrait
of the pregnant Helga, torn between the life within her and the
bleak, savage tale they're re-creating. The theme -- perhaps a nod
to Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" -- isn't fully
developed but contributes some provocative and affecting moments.
Carter is also riveting as a cried-out woman, the eternal mother
of soldiers killed in every war down to the present.
Most of the gods and their stories are less effectively represented,
though a lean, agile Ben Dziuba is an engagingly devious, at times
funny, creepy and self-righteously evil Loki. An aged Odin, the
leader of the Aesir, spends too much time explaining that he sees
all and is trying to find out what's going on, in repetitive speeches
awkwardly declaimed by Roham Shaikhani. Fuller kvetches authoritatively
but redundantly as his wife Frigge. Nikolai Lokteff swaggers about
as the great warrior Thor in some of the better told stories, particularly
his adventures with Loki. Jessica Kitchens is a strong presence
as Freya, goddess of love, sex and fecundity.
There's some good comedy with the Primals, led by O'Donnell as a
band of deceptively frivolous and decrepit clowns. Loki's sinister
defiance of the gods is dramatic and his flight from them, shifting
shapes and slipping through traps, is creatively crafted and effectively
staged. Oddly, the final great battle -- the Ragnarok of "Ragnarok"
-- is comparatively flat and anticlimactic.
"Why do we worship the gods if they're already dead?"
Helga asks, reasonably enough. Bishop and Fuller raise the question
not so much theologically as socially, asking us to re-examine our
part in the age-old worship of the warrior and whether it's a good
idea, as Loki proposes, to "put our trust in fear." It's
a timely and potentially fertile subject that "Ragnarok"
only begins to explore.
E-mail Robert Hurwitt at firstname.lastname@example.org