Melissa Merli: Recent 'Wolf' performances were packed
The hottest ticket in town last week was to Deke Weaver's "Wolf," a multidisciplinary show that was a journey of sorts.
It ran for five performances, opening Sept. 12 and ending Monday, the night I participated. I hate to use the overused word journey, but that's what it was.
It also was extremely ambitious, layered, entertaining, memorable and fun.
After seeing "Wolf," Matti Bunzl, artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival and a University of Illinois anthropology professor, posted on Facebook: "Stunned by the conceptual ambition and aesthetic scale of 'Wolf,' the extraordinary performance piece created by Deke Weaver and Jennifer Allen."
I was stunned, too, by the massive collaborative effort that was "Wolf," and by the fact so many people were willing to give so much of their time to see "Wolf." Or not see it, as the free tickets went fast, and 250 people were turned away the Friday night of the five-day run.
The show began at about 6:15 each evening on two red-and-white chartered buses as they pulled away from Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, with Weaver and other actors dressed like park rangers as our guides.
They were taking us to the Allerton International Biosphere, where wolves were introduced in 2008 — a little fantasy mixed in with history, science and myth about the wolf, once on the endangered species list in some states, to drive home the point about how much out of balance we humans are with nature.
On the way, Weaver, who was on the bus I rode, kept up an entertaining patter that included a brief history of Allerton Park and myriad facts about wolves and video images (including vintage cartoons) of wolves.
There also was a song, and a sing-along of "Home on the Range." The lyrics, also on the video monitors on the bus, were revised to include "Oh, give me a zone where the wolf packs still roam."
As we traveled toward Monticello and the sun dipped toward the horizon, we peered through the windows at the monoculture of corn and soybeans that Weaver said surrounded the "Allerton International Biosphere" zone, making it a sort of island.
As our bus reached the trail head at Allerton, Weaver divided us into herds. My friend and I were bison.
Before our hike began, Weaver and the other rangers passed out breath mints — earlier Weaver had mentioned studies show elk killed by wolves had gum disease, a sign of cancer or other illnesses. Wolves were culling the herd of weaker members, resulting in a healthier population.
We were told to keep silent and to open our senses. We did. A nearly full moon in the east helped light our way, as "wolves" — several dancers in costumes designed by Susan Becker — approached and then scampered away.
As we neared the Music Barn, we heard loud electronic music by Chris Peck and saw in the distance a pack of "wolves." One, wearing a mask and down on her hands and knees, was convincing. I felt a little fear, even though I knew there are no real wolves at Allerton Park.
After we entered the Music Barn, we perused on the lower level four art installations created by other artists, among them Maria Lux and Nicki Werner:
— A set of paintings in gold frames of wolves including a white pup, depicting the "Mr. and Mrs. Big Bad Wolf" family tree.
— A diorama of a forest, with three wolves howling on a hilltop. A "ranger' made the diorama turn in a circle by pumping a bicycle with a pulley attached to the art piece.
— A life-sized wolf, constructed of plaster and painted in gold, standing on a sort of altar, with offerings before it.
— A beautiful graphite drawing of the spirit wolf of the Northern Hemisphere.
We straggled up to the loft where one "wolf" was lying on the floor, in the middle of a circle drawn in white, on which six or seven little wolf figurines were displayed. We sat on curved wooden benches that were made just for "Wolf."
Eventually other wolves moved around in choreography created by Jennifer Allen, who also co-directed and performed in "Wolf."
The costumes were effective; they were intended not to be comical but instead shaman-like, Becker told me later.
There also were two large video screens in the loft on which the cosmos and other images were displayed, as Weaver told stories about, among other things, his time studying wolves at Yellowstone National Park and Isle Royale.
A charismatic performer, Weaver took on several guises including that of a farmer in the northern woods whose cattle were threatened by wolves, and a scientist who wore a fake set of canine nose and teeth and big black glasses with bushy gray eyebrows. He spoke in a German accent that reminded my friend of Werner Herzog's.
Other performers, dressed as park rangers, sang, played slide whistles and spoke during the performance in the loft, lit dramaticallty by Valerie Oliveiro. My friend and I thought the loft part of the show lasted a little too long, but two younger people sitting next to us did not. They said they "zoned into it.".
After it ended, we were all asked to join hands and led by Allen, we descended from the loft saying, "We are all interconnected." On our way to the bus we passed a tableau vivant of two north-woods denizens, splitting wood.
On the way back home, happy chatter and laughter filled the bus.
Before the show, prior to boarding the bus, volunteers sold "Wolf" T-shirts and tote bags outside Krannert Center. I bought a T-shirt, for $20, contributing to the cause. Plus, I like the image of the howling wolf, in red, on black..
People lucky enough to score a free ticket to "Wolf" each received, on a necklace, a wooden medallion on which a wolf head is etched. It looks sort of like a Boy Scout badge.
It's unlikely "Wolf" will be staged again because so much was involved, including money to rent the buses, equipment, the Music Barn, etc. Weaver also marshaled a lot of forces to pull off "Wolf."
Most of the people who worked on the show are full-time students or professors; it would be difficult for them and Weaver to carve out the time for more presentations. The collaboration necessary to pull off "Wolf" was a lot more extensive than most people realize, Weaver said.
He credited Allen, his wife, for taking over most of the direction as he focused on his performance and the video.
People will eventually be able to see a documentary of "Wolf," created by Shatterglass Studios, the Champaign-based film and video production company. Weaver hopes to show it at film festivals and distribute it to libraries.
The UI professor also will scale down "Wolf" to a version he can take on the road. and eventually make a series of books of each of his performances in "The Unreliable Bestiary," about endangered species.
"Wolf" was the third.
"By the end you would have this collectible encyclopedic series, from A to Z. That's the idea," he told me.
His first two "Unreliable Bestiary" shows were "Monkey," presented in a small black-box theater, and "Elephant," a circus-like extravaganza in the UI Stock Pavilion.
Weaver, son of a biologist, said one big idea behind the "Unreliable Bestiary" is to flip back and forth between people acting as animals and animals acting as people. (In one "Wolf" tale, he tells of a wolf and a human having a conversation in a bar.)
"It's kind of like looking at our relationships with animals, kind of in the way fairy tales have done for a long time," he said. "It's looking at the relationship in a different light."
To raise money for "Wolf," Weaver turned to Kickstarter, an online crowd-funding site. He exceeded his $5,000 goal, raising $9,378 from 153 backers. He also received grants.
According to the program, "Wolf" received support from the UI Center for Advanced Study, the UI Campus Research Board, the UI College of Fine and Applied Arts, eDREAM, the UI School of Art + Design, the UI School of Music, Krannert and the Isle Royale National Park Artist Residency Program. It was partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council.
For more info, check out unreliablebestiary.org.
Dance at KAM
Other hot and — free — tickets the past couple weeks were to the Open Studio Tere O'Connor and Jennifer Monson dance performances in the empty East Gallery of Krannert Art Museum. More on those in a future column.