According to the old Icelandic myth from which Huldufólk Theatre takes its name, God once dropped in unexpectedly to visit Eve and her brood. The first lady, ashamed that some of her children were unwashed, instructed the dirtiest of them to bustle off and hide themselves. Later, when God asked her whether all her children were accounted for, Eve denied the existence of the few she had sent away. As the story goes, God then decreed that the missing children should wander the world unseen forever after. Aside from being a rather evocative fable, the tale of the Huldufólk is a parable of social conscience; the children of Eve are everywhere and it is only for us to recognize them. Fittingly, Huldufólk's latest production, a spare but surprisingly effective staging of John Steinbeck's Burning Bright, reflects a fierce solidarity with the unwashed and unseen masses.
In Burning Bright, as in all of his "play-novellas," Steinbeck was working toward a synthesis that would read like prose and act like a play. And, as in all of his play-novellas, the results were much the opposite. Indeed, Burning Bright often feels less like a fully formed play than a dramatic exercise--a potentially frustrating one, too, were it not for the finely tuned performances of Huldufólk's cast. As the play commences, a circus acrobat named Joe Saul (Michael Booth) is staring blankly at the audience from behind a dressing table. He is floundering in existential malaise, we learn, because he cannot manage to conceive a child with his much younger wife Mordeen (Carol Butler). The prospect of letting his bloodline die terrifies Joe beyond reason. As he explains to a fellow named Friend Ed (Steve Sweere), "A man can't snip the thread of immortality."
The circus, as envisioned by director Ron Menzel and set designer Christopher Atwood Hall, is delineated by only a few trunks and a sheet stretched out overhead. Into this enclosed world steps Victor (Pete Ooley), a swaggering young acrobat who is equal parts hubris and malice. From the moment Victor lays eyes on Mordeen, it is apparent that he intends to supplant the patriarch of the circus in the sexual arena.
As things begin to heat up beneath the big top, however, Steinbeck changes venue and the same four characters are suddenly transplanted to a rough and rickety farmhouse denoted by a cast-iron stove and a few bits of furniture. In this new place, Joe Saul and Mordeen have apparently conceived their coveted child. Ed Friend is now a kindly neighbor and Victor a stolid hired hand. Even as Joe waxes ecstatic about the impending joys of fatherhood, all is not as simple as it seems.
The unexplained shift in setting is disorienting enough that we reasonably expect it to represent the beginning of a new tale. Yet Steinbeck's experimental conceit is to continue the story begun in the first act in a new time and place. It is as though the physical details of the play's cosmos are entirely variable, while the characters themselves remain constant. Thus acrobats metamorphose seamlessly into farmers or fishermen. Imbuing such archetypal characters with some semblance of individuality is no small challenge, but for the most part, Huldufólk's cast responds admirably.
As the obsessed but essentially gentle Joe Saul, Booth vacillates between psychic impotence and bursts of anger that seem to issue from some wellspring of virility. Butler is somewhat suspect as the long-suffering wife, but it is more the result of Steinbeck's unwieldy prose than the specifics of her performance. Though she is meant to represent the classic Steinbeck figure of saintly motherhood, she is given dialogue that makes her sound suspiciously like a male, Nobel Prize-winning writer with postmodern tendencies. It is perhaps a failure of Steinbeck's experimental hybrid form: In a novel the author's voice may speak for all, but in a play the actors must be allowed to fill in the spaces between the lines. In this case, Steinbeck, the champion of democratic narrative, is unable to cede authorial control.
If Steinbeck's forays into unfamiliar stylistic territory prove less than exhilarating, the play's central argument about the blood brotherhood of humanity is both recognizable and resonant. As the characters drift toward an inevitable meltdown, Steinbeck reveals his underlying theme: It is the instinct for self-perpetuation, buried beyond knowing in the human fiber, that drives these men against nature. As in all of his work, Steinbeck tempers his Darwinian worldview with a deeply felt compassion. It is in our hunger, he suggests, that we are both most capable of cruelty and most human. Even Joe Saul, with his desperate yearning for an heir, can find redemption. "It is the race that must go staggering on," Joe finally realizes. "Our ugly little race...Every man must be a father to all children, and every child must have every man as a father."
Burning Bright runs through August 1 at the Cedar Riverside People's Center; (612) 827-1464.