DEER ISLE — After more than 30 years writing art stories, previews and reviews of shows in theaters, barns and school gyms, I am rarely surprised by something new under the theatrical sun.
But once in a great while something completely unexpected happens. Last Friday was a case in point. I was assigned to go to Deer Isle, to check out a rehearsal of “Avalon,” Opera House Arts’ new play to be performed Aug. 15-25 at a place called Nervous Nellie’s — which I have to say did not sound like a venue for serious theater.
In my career I have seen dozens of outdoor performances — “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” just a few weekends ago, and many wonderfully funky productions at Barn Arts Collective in Bass Harbor. But as soon as I arrived at the far, far end of Sunshine Road, I knew this was going to be something way beyond funky.
So beyond, in fact, I thought perhaps I had misunderstood my assignment.
Nervous Nellie’s is a brand of jams and jellies that is made on site. A beaten path leads you past several quaint, white-washed clapboard buildings — including a rather tipsy clock tower; the one where they make the jams and another where they sell them at a tea and scone café.
Standing sentinel, or lounging about, or popping up unexpectedly on this and other wood-chip pathways are strange and wonderful statuary — armored, sword-wielding knights, a couple enjoying a brewski at a picnic table, a dead Viking laid out in his funeral vessel, a larger than life jack-in-the box; a group of Crusaders, maybe, gathered around a groaning table, viewed from a narrow doorway; a menagerie of animals, pigs, dogs, horses and such, all made out of old lumber, twists of metal and other found objects.
This curious realm and its even curiouser inhabitants are the creations of sculptor and jam maker Peter Beerits, whom I happened upon at one of, what I discovered, will be three unconventional venues.
Beerits is a pleasant looking, ruddy-faced gent with a well-groomed white beard and the kind of eyes that probably change color depending on what he is wearing. Today they seem to match his gray T-shirt.
If he were sporting long robes rather than his top, chinos and knee-high Muck boots, he would look the perfect Merlin. And in fact, he is a sort of a Merlin, having created from his imagination this fantastic place, of beasts, buildings and uh, people that, like the legendary wizard himself, and Benjamin Button, were born already ancient.
“There’s always something new taking shape in my head,” says Beerits, who was actually a trained artist before becoming an artisanal jam maker. “But I’ve had to put a lot of these projects on hold for this.”
He is, of course, talking about “Avalon,” the play inspired by his “Nellieville” based on the Arthurian legend, and currently in rehearsal for its opening Aug. 15.
Sitting on some planks of lumber — an eventual platform for audience seating — his back braced against a spruce tree, Beerits took a rare break in his extensive to-do list, while in the background a group of young New York actors, (including playwright Melody Bates who also plays the witch Morgana) were gathered around what will be a round table( when Beerits finishes it.) They are being directed by two of the play’s three directors.
Beerits seemed surprisingly relaxed considering how much there is to do in less than two weeks. It must be said, here, that the mouthwatering aroma of baking scones found its way to this place, making it hard to stay focused on asking cogent questions.
This small natural amphitheater is one of three sites where, I learned, the story of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table will unfold. Another sight is a three-story “wizard’s tower” that Beerits built especially for “Avalon” and a third is a grassy sward near the jelly-making operation.
During a break in rehearsal, Bates says the whole project is the result of an epiphany she had several years ago.
“It was one of those ‘duh moments,’” the playwright said. “I’ve been performing at the OHA [Opera House Arts] for years — it’s my creative center — and Peter has been a big supporter. I’ve also known about this magical forest he created for years. Three years ago, it finally occurred to me this would be the ideal spot to perform a play I’d been thinking about writing.”
This is not her first foray into playwrighting. An award-winning actress with an extensive resume in Shakespearean characters, she also has been honored for her innovative plays “R & J & Z,” a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Café at the End of the World,” both of which were produced at OHA.
“When I broached the idea of creating this site-specific play to Peter, he seemed excited by the concept,” she said. “All the writing has been informed by this place.”
She says this retelling of the Arthurian legend strives to join medieval myth and magic and modern sensibility, fleshing out the characters so each of them brings their own stories to the table. She has also has created a new character — the Player Queen— who seems to serve as a narrator or interpreter as the story evolves.
Beerits doesn’t appear to have any regrets about his initial “let’s do it!” response, despite how time-consuming the collaboration has turned out to be.
“Sure, there’s lots of other stuff I could be doing, but this is the thing I am doing now and I’m enjoying it all.”
Despite having to swat the occasional mosquito, the eight professional actors and a handful of local talents Bates recruited to her round table are equally enthusiastic.
“I believe in the magic power of storytelling,” said Cristina Pitter, who auditioned for her role as Player Queen in New York City. “It’s a wonderful way of bringing love and understanding into the world.” She is utterly convincing, and I can see why she got the part.
As might be expected with three collaborating directors Laura Butler Rivera, April Sweeney and Joan Jubett, forward progress in this rehearsal is slow. The scene being rehearsed was when an ebullient Arthur and Guinevere have first assembled their knights, but the joyful debut party is crashed by Arthur’s son Mordred. After each “take,” one or another of the directors have a new thought for the staging “Let’s have the knights shift in their positions around the table when Mordred appears” one of them suggested, “very subtly thrown off kilter.” So, after a brief confab, they try that a few times before another thought occurred to a director.
After a good half hour, they were still working on this five-minute scene.
Earlier it was a similarly slow process with yet another director — the show’s violence choreographer, Angela Bonacasa. She was staging a sort of “night of the long knives ” event over at the Wizard’s tower, where Lancelot and Guinevere’s romantic tryst had been interrupted. Over and over. soldiers were being stabbed and slashed by Lancelot until the director felt it all looked authentically bloody.
As tedious as all this repetition must be for the actors, it is obvious that attention to detail is going to be the hallmark of this production. Although there were bugs in the air and the sun was at its zenith, none of the actors expressed the slightest impatience or aired a single complaint — even when Guinevere’s bootlace gets stuck in a crack on the tiny stage, she merely suggested solutions to what might be a problem.
Another possible problem occurred to me. Would these actors, as good as they appeared in the snippets I saw, going to be upstaged by Peter Beerits’s incredible venue — by all the dead Vikings, crusaders, scary clowns and jack-in-the-boxes etc. lurking in these woods?
Then I caught a glimpse of one of the actors sitting on bench under an arch upon which a sculpture of an angel with a trumpet was perched. Perhaps the actor was just seeking a brief moment in the shade, but without being told, it was obvious that this impressive man was King Arthur and equally obvious that not even the angel Gabriel was going to upstage him for a second.
“Avalon” will be performed at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, Aug. 15-25, outdoors at Nervous Nellie’s at 598 Sunshine Road in Deer Isle. Standing tickets cost $20 per person and seated tickets cost $45 per person. On Aug. 15, admission is “pay-what-you-wish.” Admission is free to any performance for K-12 grade Hancock County students. To reserve tickets, call 367-2788 and visit operahousearts.org.