Disaster preparedness

Ellen Gavin's Stardust and Empty Wagons: Stories from the Katrina Diaspora
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Above a semicircle of wooden crates arranged on a weathered wooden stage, two tattered flags of New Orleans and the United States are projected on a back screen. The flags appear to flutter in the rotating series of overlapping still images. This shifting perspective implicitly signals the living and composite nature of the history (recent and long-term, local and national) we are about to hear, as the 11 members of the ensemble representing survivors of Hurricane Katrina's inundation of New Orleans in 2005 slowly assemble onstage and introduce themselves.

As they tell their individual stories — with charming, informal demeanors — and relate the story of their city, the flags give way to a steady stream of projected images (designed by Daniel Gamberg), including old snapshots, local landscapes, memorabilia, bits of relevant text, a pregnant cloudscape, and, finally, images of an unprecedented natural and human disaster. The social breakdown, government malfeasance, and open racism attendant on the Katrina disaster are balanced by stories of courage, compassion, camaraderie, and resolve — human capacities grounded in individual character and familial and communal solidarity, as well as the resources of a specific cultural life and history made manifest in the play's wise and winning emphasis on New Orleans's African American musical heritage.

While not uniformly strong, the cast includes some formidable talents (including Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Velina Brown, L. Peter Callender, and Elizabeth Carter) and has another actor playing herself: Federal Emergency Management Agency inspector Linda Rose McCoy (whose unique and surprisingly sympathetic perspective makes up for some awkward and rather abrupt entrances and exits). Although the unevenness brings unintended lulls to the show's pith and pacing, in general these down-to-earth stories and alternately quiet and harrowing disaster testimonials — together with a solid mix of a cappella song, recorded music (from the irresistibly joyful Hot 8 Brass Band), and the occasional burst of movement — bring much life to a relatively spare stage. Amid a growing cult of catastrophe, Stardust reminds us poignantly of the culture of survival.

ARGOS, OR NOT

On dramatically turbulent waters of its own, the latest Mary Zimmerman extravaganza, a retelling of Jason and the Argonauts' search for the Golden Fleece, sails smoothly into a West Coast premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Bay Area berth for the director's previous work, including the Tony Award–winning Metamorphoses. Zimmerman runs a tight ship and knows how to rig a stage — first of all, with cleverly intricate mise-en-scènes, including a dynamic, even acrobatic ensemble of actors (led by Jake Suffian as an average-dude Jason), beautiful sets (Daniel Ostling's enormous and pristine wood plank walls and ceiling, with a matching wooden catwalk and a mast rising like a firehouse pole through an aperture, look like the environs of a high-priced New York art gallery), and the playful use of stage properties (including Michael Montenegro's buoyantly rough-and-ready puppets).

But the play also feels rigged. With humor pitched low (from an occasionally clever angle) and a forced sense of wonder, the spectacle has a vaguely didactic, children's-theater aspect, as if some assigned learning were being dressed up and played down as "fun." Some episodes work well dramatically, the story of Hercules and Hylas in particular. But in the end, the long (two and a half hours) journey, which scrawls a timely (if wishful) moral about mad missions abroad "to put an end to evil" ending miserably for their instigators, is a short hop, emotionally and intellectually.

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