He's 'Bear'-ly recognizable

He's 'Bear'-ly recognizable

URBANA — Researching for his "Bear" performances, artist Deke Weaver discovered that stories about bears are among the oldest on the planet and strikingly similar across cultures in the northern hemisphere.

Usually, the themes are life, death, rebirth and resurrection — mainly because ancient peoples watched bears go into the Earth each fall and rise up each spring, looking much different than before.

Weaver, a professor in the University of Illinois School of Art and Design, will draw on those ideas for his third and final chapter of "Bear," opening tonight at the Station Theatre for a two-week run.

He will not tell the old stories directly.

"Instead, I'm using some of those ideas and the ideas around the physiology of bears," he said. "For example, a female polar bear comes out of the den in the spring weighing 200 pounds and 1,000 pounds when she goes back in the den in the fall."

Applied to a human woman, she would weigh 400 pounds before going into hibernation and 130 pounds afterward.

One overriding theme of the spring chapter is transformation, evidenced in part by Weaver having grown a long, thick beard for the fall chapter of "Bear" at Meadowbrook Park and later shaving it for the spring chapter.

"Bear" is part of Weaver's lifelong "The Unreliable Bestiary" performance series about endangered animals. So far he's presented "Monkey," "Elephant" and "Wolf."

The shows often sell out, though plenty of tickets remain so far for this "Bear."

Over time, Weaver's "Unreliable Bestiary" performances have "taken on legendary status, like the performances of (Alexander) Calder's Circus in 1920s Paris," art historian Jonathan Fineberg wrote for the Jan. 16 issue of the online arts site "Hyperallergic."

Fineberg, a UI emeritus professor and now visiting distinguished professor at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts of the University of California-Irvine, also calls the multimedia "Bestiary" performances magical and immersive, often relying on the physical involvement of small groups of viewers.

"The environment is literally in your face, and that opens you up to the experience on a physical level, to a re-imagining of the world and your place within it in a fresh way," Fineberg wrote.

Environmental designer Andy Warfel designed the set for the "Bear" spring chapter, building it with Phil Orr. The two re-used lumber that Weaver and collaborators had used for the fall chapter.

The "Bear" spring chapter set resembles a runway or platform that emerges as the tongue from a giant bear's head. The platform also serves as the table for a feast; some audience members will have "front-row" seats at the table.

There will be some interaction with the audience but not as much as in the fall chapter of "Bear."

Weaver's wife, Jennifer Allen, a choreographer/dancer, co-directs "Bear" with Weaver. She said it and the set take off from where Weaver left it in the fall chapter, when he wore a grizzly beard and told stories in a "den" inside a barn at Meadowbrook Park.

Weaver said a person does not have to have experienced the fall and winter chapters of "Bear" to make sense of the spring installment.

"I think there are connections to be made if you are part of all three sections but you'd still get a lot from just seeing the one," he said.

Besides Oliver, Weaver and Allen, other performers in "Bear" are Laura Chiaramonte, Cynthia Degnan and Nicki Werner. Three musicians — Charlie Harris, Cody Jensen and Beth Simpson — perform on a variety of instruments, among them toy piano and cello. The music and sound are by Chris Peck, with music direction by Tony Reimer. The costumes are by Susan Becker, who teaches fashion design at the UI.

Fans may still experience the winter "Bear" chapter, on a DIY basis.

It features six videos created by Weaver. In them, he uses geocaching to draw viewers to area parks to find clues.

The links to the videos are at unreliablebestiary.org/bear or on the Unreliable Bestiary Facebook page.

"As usual, make sure you bring your 'BEAR Field Guide' and a pencil," Weaver advises, referring to the guide given to those who experienced the fall chapter of "Bear."

People who don't have a field guide may download the pertinent information at unreliablebestiary.org/bear.

If you go

What: "Bear," written by Deke Weaver, co-directed by Weaver and Jennifer Allen.

When: 8 p.m. tonight through Feb. 25.

Where: Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway Ave., U.

Tickets: $10 on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; $15, Fridays and Saturdays.

Reservations: 217-384-4000 or stationtheatre.com.