Four a.m. Figures wrapped in blankets move slowly around the town square, drinking hot soup in paper cups. Other figures huddle together for warmth on the wooden porches in front of the stores. A guitar strums tiredly. A baby whimpers.
What catastrophe has thrown these people together under the cold moon? They are theater fans, and it is intermission at "The Coyote Cycle."
The figure in the sleeping bag on the far porch is your reporter, feeling remarkably fresh. We have been watching "The Coyote Cycle" since sundown, but it will be over at dawn, only a couple of hours away. It's cold out here in the mountains, but it's not getting any colder. The stars are magnificent. As a camping experience, it has been distinctly bearable.
As theater? Again, not an ordeal. Murray Mednick's "Coyote Cycle" isn't one long play but seven short ones, separated by intermissions of about 40 minutes. There's time to regroup between the acts, even to nap. In terms of sustained attention, less is required than at "Nicholas Nickleby."
The space is right for an outdoor epic: the Paramount Ranch, an abstract of every Western movie town. The audience (about 200) returns to Main Street between shows. Then we're led by flashlight to a new locale: a big tree, an open field, a stockade. One of the plays is set on slanted ground, which figures in the dialogue. Gravity is out of whack here, in thrall to the Spider Woman (Christine Avila.)
The actors, who have been with the project since Mednick started writing the plays in the 1970s for the Padua Hills Festival, are extraordinary. There are only four of them: Avila; Priscilla Cohen as Clown; Darrell Larson as Coyote; Norbert Weisser as Trickster. What does it take for two actors to run around under that cold moon wearing nothing but bathing suits? More than adrenaline. Belief.
Does the audience believe "The Coyote Cycle"? From the complimentary howls that went up at the last play ended at dawn, last weekend's crowd did. (Another marathon performance will be held this Saturday.) This viewer had trouble maintaining the faith.
"Coyote Cycle" takes its mythology from the American Indian. Coyote and Trickster are young gods with much to learn about life, which the Spider Woman will teach them--the hard way. (There's a lot of Gail Sondegaard in Avila's portrayal, consistent with the piece's jokey tone. Wisdom in this epic comes through laughter.)
Coyote's mission on Earth involves freeing a hidden waterfall, which will flush the Earth of evil spirits . . . for now. (In this cosmology, what goes around comes around.) Trickster, too, has a mission, which he can't recall. Being the more serious spirit, this is driving him around the bend. He wishes he were home in the lower world.
Coyote also wants to go home. He lives in the upper world, as befits his cheerful outlook. Think of Ariel crossed with Simple Simon--a Simon who has somehow got it into his head that he is capable of doing anything. In fact, whatever the mission, Coyote usually screws up.
The worrywart and the goof: They make funny sidekicks. And in time it comes to them, as it may earlier have come to the viewer, that they are two sides of the same coin called Man. Either he is falling on his face trying to be divine, or he is skulking around with the moles. Never content just to walk on the trail.
But the piece doesn't articulate a moral. All we know for sure is that the waterfall does finally flow--leading to those howls--and that our heroes seem to have taken a step toward wisdom, symbolized by their last walk up the mountain. And by now we have a young Trickster (Morgan Weisser) and a young Coyote (Tavish Graham).
An epic myth can have as many meanings as it has readers. What counts is its resonance as a tale, a journey of the soul. Does it hold us as a story? Are we eager to see Coyote's and Trickster's next adventure?
After a few chapters, I wasn't especially eager to do so, for this reason: Their adventures proved so spiritual that it was hard to see much going on on the surface other than talk. An exception, and a delightful one, was Coyote's experience giving birth to a dozen weird little spider brats (sired by Spider Woman, to teach him a lesson).
As each spider emerged from the "door of birth" in the hillside, he would zip up into the tree on a wire, until we finally had a tree swinging with spider ornaments. Not a profound image--a gag, almost--but it culminated and symbolized an action, and one felt that this particular chapter had gotten somewhere.
Elsewhere Trickster and Coyote tended to have mutual epiphanies--verbal revelations--rather than adventures. Instead of traveling with them in a kind of dream time, this viewer felt shut out from the source of their hilarity and discoveries, though our actors made it clear that they were having tremendous ones.
It was a bit like listening to two buddies who have had a few too many beers. They're breaking up at their jokes, but the jokes just aren't that funny. Much of "The Coyote Cycle" resembles the kind of children's theater where the performers say stupid things and expect the kids to giggle. Here we're expected to giggle and to see the essential wisdom behind the stupidity. Hey, Doo-Doo Brain!
One also missed a sense of the pain that men lay up while getting smart. In the first play, Weisser issues a tremendous howl at the memory of his dead son, but when it comes time for him and for Coyote to die, they simply flop down like kids. OK. We're dead. The idea may be this is a universe where nothing is final and therefore nothing is entirely serious; but it looks cute.
As a dramatic cycle, "Coyote" needs to be less beguiling and more dramatic. It needs a darkness that can be taken seriously. As a theater experience, however, it's unique. If the marathon sounds a bit daunting, the reader can see Parts I-IV tonight and Parts V-VII Wednesday. Wear lots of heavy clothing, bring coffee and take the route to the ranch that goes through the Santa Monica Mountains, which are spectacular both at sunset and at dawn. Information at (213) 655-4137.
'THE COYOTE CYCLE' Murray Mednick's seven plays, presented by L.A. Theatre Works at the Paramount Ranch, Agoura. Producers Susan Albert Loewenberg, Sara Maultsby. Director Mednick. Set design Robert A. Behling. Production stage manager Matthew Goulish. Set construction Behling, Steve Bauer, Gregory Hormel, John Oldach, Cogswell Gearhead. Production coordinator Richard Bloom. Costumes Louise Hayter, Michele Jo Blanche. Weaving Margaret Clarke; Nargis. With Christine Avila, Priscilla Cohen, Darrell Larson, Norbert Weisser. Plays in its entirety next Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with Parts I-IV playing Tuesday and Parts V-VII playing Wednesday. Tickets: $45 for the entire cycle, $15 for the partial showings. Paramount Ranch, Agoura, (213) 655-4137.