By Ellen Booraem
Special to The Ellsworth American
DEER ISLE — The brilliantly wacko sculpture garden at Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies has always been a magical place. Now it has a play to match.
It’s not often that a Downeast audience gets to see a play in its first staging, when energy and creativity bounce all over the place, not always quite under control. It’s an exciting theatrical event, even (especially?) when it’s not in an actual theater.
“Avalon,” the Opera House Arts production now in residence at Nervous Nellie’s, is no less magical from being a work in progress. Written by Melody Bates, a frequent headliner in OHA/Stonington Opera House productions over the past decade and a half, the play was initially inspired by the Arthurian castle and sculptures created at Nervous Nellie’s by owner Peter Beerits.
The play also owes inspiration to “The Mists of Avalon,” the Marion Zimmer Bradley novel that turned Arthurian legend on its ear in 1983. Telling the tale of King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and the Round Table from the women’s point of view, Bradley set her story in a Celtic world under attack by Rome-based Christianity. Historically and in the novel, Celtic culture accorded women a level of equality and power that Christian priests did their best to submerge.
Judith Jerome, the production’s dramaturg, says in her program notes that she attempted to count up the versions of the Arthurian legend presented to an eager public over the past millennium or so and gave up at 50. “Avalon” uses that familiarity as a frame: In the first act and the conclusion, characters express hope and curiosity about how another telling will affect the tale’s outcome.
“Let’s see what happens if I’m a knight from the start,” says Percival (Hwalan Shub), a woman presented to us first as The Lady of the Lake.
“I want him back,” the sorceress Morgana (Bates) says about her dead brother, Arthur, at the end.
“When we tell the story again,” says her lover Accolon (Matt Hurley), who is also Merlin.
In between, there’s magic, love, betrayal, music, dancing, a battle of shadow puppets, a fanciful dragon-wing contraption and a lemon meringue pie in the face. In background and foreground are Beerits’ incredible castle, wizard’s tower and church, plus a field with convenient apple trees and a stake for burning a queen. The audience walks from venue to venue along wooded paths.
There are some passages that need work. Act I is too heavy on exposition, and Act II, Part I has way too much message. The scene in which Guinevere is arrested for adultery is wooden and, again, weighed down by the point it’s trying to make.
But the marvels outweigh the problems.
As usual for OHA, among the marvels are the actors, chief among them playwright Bates as Morgana and Matt Hurley, also an OHA regular, as Merlin/Accolon. They are lovers, partners, rivals and above all equals, as they demonstrate with a repeating exchange about what one will lose if the other gives them a peach. (“A peach is never just a peach.”) They give the exchange three times, once reversing the roles and once speaking in unison. It’s lovely.
Cristina Pitter is the Player Queen, the play’s narrator and sage. Her majesty and humor ground every scene and, wow, does she have a voice. Shawn Fagan as the bastard Mordred— “the shadow” on his father’s court — brings a sardonic energy that’s crucial to every scene he’s in. Mordred is the spokesman for the bad guys — objecting to a female knight, decrying pagan influences — and Fagan pulls that off with a light, wry touch. He’s no fan of pie.
Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot — Jonathan West, Maria Jung and Tristan J. Shuler — are a vibrant, engaging threesome: The “sin” that causes their downfall is entirely believable.
Also in OHA tradition, the cast is racially diverse, particularly important for this legend and this modern-day version of it. The production is a partnership among three directors, all women: Joan Jubett, Laura Butler Rivera and April Sweeney.
Although there are glancing references to the sinful threesome, Avalon is a wonder for families. It’s King Arthur after all. And as the Player Queen says: “How can a lady be a knight? Ask your daughters!”
“Avalon” continues through Sunday, Aug. 25, with performances at 5:30 p.m. daily. All performances are sold out at this writing, but contact the box office to check in. Some seats are held in reserve in case prior performances are canceled by weather. The box office phone is 367-2788. Information: www.operahouse.org.