A Different Spirit in 'Windigo' : Troupe Hopes Indian Culture Gives Growing-Up Play Added Depth

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Coming of age, with its attendant trials and successes, is a topic so well-worn in family theater and film that it borders on the threadbare. You know the plot by heart: On his or her journey to adulthood, a young person meets a string of seemingly insurmountable challenges while learning a valuable lesson in self-reliance and honor.

But with their upcoming production of "The Windigo" by Dennis Foon, South Coast Repertory's Young Conservatory Players hope to give that homely theme a richer hue by weaving in the history and traditions of American Indians. "The Windigo," recommended for audience members ages 8 and up, opens today and continues through March 22 in the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Founders Hall.

"The Windigo," staged in the round by Young Conservatory founder and director Diane Doyle, follows Half Sky (played by Michael Stephen Hampton II), a contemporary teen-ager descended from the Ojibway tribe, as he relives a childhood and adolescence fraught with hardship, hunger and danger.

In one of the play's dramatic peaks, Half Sky must endure starvation and bitter cold--or the spirit of the Windigo--while on his vision quest, a traditional process of self-discovery common among most Indian cultures. The one-hour performance will also feature authentic American Indian songs and dances.

Arriving audience members will walk to their seats through a small "birch forest" representing the importance of birch bark to the Ojibway (or Chippewa) people, who relied on it for everything from baskets to burial shrouds. For the first time in YCP's history, audience members will be seated inside the set, an adaptation of an Ojibway spirit lodge created by Dwight Richard Odle.

The set incorporates the medicine wheel design common throughout Indian culture, and a three-foot-high "smoking" fire pit in the center. But while Doyle said has struggled to maintain authenticity wherever possible, she also said she's not out to teach a history lesson.

"This isn't a documentary, it's a play," she explained. "It's a slice of life. It's universal. For example, there's a scene in which the shaman, or medicine man, is having a discussion with Half Sky about facing what he fears and standing up for himself. Richard (her husband, an actor at SCR) had this same conversation with (his son) Brennen not very long ago."

Written in 1978 as a touring production, "The Windigo" has undergone a fair amount of elaboration in Doyle's hands. The original script calls for a four-member cast; Doyle has expanded it to eight people. For added theatricality, she also has written in a wedding scene with Half Sky and Sweet Grass (Felicia Luna), and introduced a pair of spirits (Holly McLean and Steven Pornbida) she describes as "Pucks with no lines."

"They make the magic happen so the actors don't have to. They're a kind of theatrical device, moving things around the stage, taking off blankets and such, but they're moving in a very fluid modern dance style." Costume designer Rhonda Earick has outfitted the spirits in cream-colored unitards touched with glitter. She also has equipped them with 22-foot streams of iridescent China silk to flow behind as they move.

Hilary Webb, a board member at the Southern California Indian Center in Costa Mesa, who is of Ojibway descent, acted as Doyle's primary consultant. Webb, whose Indian name is Morning Wolf, conducted a lengthy seminar with the cast on her people's history and customs and continued to provide information throughout rehearsals.

Then, earlier this week, she performed a traditional Indian blessing of Founders Hall, burning sage grass in an effort to purify the space and "draw in positive energy," she explained.

Family productions that deal responsibly with the Indian people are few and far between, said Webb, who expects young people to leave "The Windigo" with a better understanding of Indian culture.

The play "lets (young people) know that there are Indians right now who are a part of their community," said Webb, "and if they want to know more about us, we welcome them." Brochures outlining the Indian Center's programs, including social services and an annual summer powwow at the Orange County fairgrounds, will be available at all performances.

Doyle also hopes that "The Windigo" will correct a few stereotypes. "What I love is that this is not the Apache warrior story we're all so used to," she noted. "This is a 16-year-old boy learning how to survive and have a relationship. It's real people."

"The Windigo" will be presented by South Coast Repertory's Young Conservatory Players in the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Founders Hall today and Sunday at 2 and 4 p.m.; March 20 at 7:30 p.m.; March 21 at 4 and 7:30 p.m., and March 22 at 2 and 4 p.m. Not recommended for children under age 8. Tickets: $8 to $10. Information: (714) 957-4033.

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