The Arts
August 2-8, 2006

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Gods and Monsters

The Independent Eye grabs Thor's hammer and hits the road

By David Templeton

There is one important thing in Norse mythology--and the whole Norse pantheon of gods--that sets it apart from other myths about the gods, and that is this: In the Norse stories, the Gods are not immortal. Gods can die--and they do."

So says Elizabeth Fuller of the Sebastopol-based experimental theater company the Independent Eye. She is describing the set-up of Ragnarok: The Doom of the Gods, a grand and ambitious new show developed as a major collaboration between the Independent Eye (the other half of which is the multitalented Conrad Bishop) and Berkeley's renowned Shotgun Players. Ragnarok was co-written by Fuller and Bishop, directed by Bishop, with Fuller composing the music and performing as one of the doomed gods. It features a 10-person cast and two onstage musicians.

The play, which relates the epic Norse legend of how Thor, Frigge and the other gods grew arrogant, lost their power and left the world in ruins, was just juicy enough a project to entice Fuller and Bishop to stage the show free in the cozy (and largely shady) Hinkel Park Amphitheatre in North Berkeley. With a tremendously loyal North Bay following, the Independent Eye team hope to see a fair number of Sonomans, Napans and Marinites crossing the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge for one of the 15 performances of their challenging, visually bold new theater piece. According to Fuller and Bishop, they're certain they've got a show that's well worth taking a trip to see.

"It's a big, flashy, fast-moving show," explains Bishop, "with lots of what you might call clown humor mixed in support of something that is absolutely dead serious: the story of the apocalypse, where all of the gods are swallowed up or burned-up or strangled or whatever, and the World Tree is ripped out by the roots, and there are vague predictions of resurrection but no hints as to where or when."

Told as a story-within-a-story, Ragnarok begins with a troop of 11th-century actors preparing to perform a grand adventure as a command performance for the earl, who is eager to clip the wings of violent Christian invaders. The Independent Eye is known for its inventive use of mask, puppetry and ceremonial acting styles, and the opportunity to stage a Norse apocalypse on an outdoor stage has provided plenty of grist for creative staging; the mask-clad gods become pitted against the red-nosed Primals (sometimes called frost giants in Norse literature), with the bare-faced humans scurrying about in between.

Adding color and pageantry to the proceedings are enormous bits and pieces of giant puppet serpents and mammoth puppet wolves, played out on a set with a Stonehenge-like assemblage of rocks and the ruins of a prehistoric temple. "From the moment you walk in and see the set," says Fuller, "it's very clearly the rubble left over from some ancient cataclysm."

According to Fuller and Bishop, the peculiarly Viking story and attitude manages to carry a potent, contemporary feel, in spite of the fact that this tale of gods and monsters was first told thousands of years ago. Looking beyond the surface, beyond all the pageantry and the puppets, the enormous critters and the ominous gods, Ragnarok is a story about choices.

"When I first started reading about this mythology," says Bishop, "I was struck by the contemporary parallels, the struggle between warlike impulses and the desire for love and peace. This is the story of how the gods, believing they are about to be attacked because of the things they've been doing to everyone else for so long, decide to build a wall to guard them from the enemies they feel they've made."

Adds Fuller, "This whole business of building a wall around yourself and arming yourself to the teeth with the very things that will destroy you really rings more than a bell right now."

'Ragnarok' plays Saturday-Sunday through Sept. 10 in the amphitheater in John Hinkel Park, Southampton Avenue, between San Diego Road and Somerset Place, Berkeley. 4pm. Free; donations hugely welcomed. 510.841.6500.

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