Dell’Arte’s Baduwa’t (Mad River) Festival begins anew

I must admit that I had a hard time getting used to the fact that the Mad River Festival, which premiered on Dell’Arte’s backyard grassy knoll back in 1990 with an over-the-top production of Barry Manilow’s musical version of the classic melodrama “The Drunkard,” directed by school co-founder Jane Hill — would continue in 2021 under a new name: Baduwa’t Festival. (Actually, the name means the same in the Wiyot language on whose ancestral land Dell’Arte stands.)

Maybe it was because I was a member of the eclectic ensemble cast of that very first Mad River show and had an absolutely wonderful time singing lots of turn of the century songs accompanied by the production’s musical director/pianist, Charlie Thompson. We performed these classic, pre-show olios to get the audience in the melodrama mood for Manilow’s clever send up of the genre’s score throughout the show that followed.

Of course, more fun was also in store for me when I morphed into the character of Carrie Nation, singing her entry song while running through the crowd, stepping over the audience’s feet and waving her infamous, saloon-busting hatchet. (Mind you, the majority of the cast were not students at the still-evolving, small school that was early Dell’Arte.)

I later joined the acting/singing ensemble in a number of bit parts, as we belted out decidedly, deliberately silly, plot-advancing numbers.

Serious, tongue-in-cheek was always our approach, from the brazenly overacted leading roles, including the villain played by Bob Wells to the equally exaggerated supporting characters. We all had a blast, and I’ll never forget it.

Over the many years of Mad River festivals that followed, many memorable madcap productions followed that were all either directed, produced and/or performed in by founding artistic director Joan Schirle, founding producing artistic director Michael Fields and founding performer Donald Forrest with the majority of the technical and musical aspects of these shows incorporating the talents of the incomparable Timmy Gray. In addition, performer Bob Wells eventually ended up as a “mature” student at what is now known as Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre taking classes along with his multi-talented actress/singer wife Lynne Wells, who then appeared together in a number of later festival productions to the delight of audiences who had been following the gifted pair’s many appearances in a wide range of plays and musicals on different, local stages.

In any case, I’ve been seeing and reviewing all of the festivals and productions at Dell’Arte ever since they all began, and that’s also why there was a bittersweet, artistic, full circle feeling concerning the people I mentioned above when I attended the newly christened Baduwa’t Festival’s main featured event last Saturday afternoon.

Why? Because most had returned to perform (Bob and Lynne Wells, Donald Forrest and Michael Fields); one was in the process of creating something new and then moving on (Fields again); and one had truly departed, leaving us all behind to remember his gentle genius (Timmy Gray).

Now, let me explain how they all fit into that afternoon’s performance agenda. Although Dell’Arte’s longtime producing artistic director, Fields, has now officially left that position, he has established his own, new production company, Longshadr (still paying cultural homage to the Wiyot land he lives on above the Baduwa’t (Mad River).

He describes it in this way: “This production company is about the hope, effort and joy of moving out of the shadows and into the light. It is about collaborations that promote the health and creative community spirit of this place. It is about preparing and creating popular (“of the people”), place-inspired theatre for a new era, in a hopefully post-pandemic time.”

And the first production of his company is the one that he created, directed and performed in for the festival, “Madsummer.”

Fields said, “It’s a first showing of what will become a very free, jukebox-musical adaptation of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” (but) with all of the lovers over the age of 60. (It’s) set in a nursing home during a pandemic, with the staff of the home like Cirque-on-steroids (don’t expect any Shakespeare).”

He explained, “The presentation of this summer’s production,” (the one I saw on Saturday at the festival), “will be a concert version with songs we are working on for the piece, along with some short, scene excerpts.” Adding, “we hope to do a full production of this work in late fall 2021.”

He feels there’s a waiting audience for the material since it’s reported that “the aging baby boomer generation will fuel a 75% increase in older Americans requiring nursing home care for about2.3 million people in 2030.”

It’s also important to note that Fields’ content for “Madsummer” has been informed by conversations with Humboldt Life Care and Hospice.

“And it should be stated that love … deep, passionate love … is possible and doesn’t end as one ages.” Nor does their sense of humor, as Fields’ still-Dell’Arte approach proved.

And, returning to the festival stage with the polished, funny Fields as he both chatted with the audience, and sang some sly songs, were the wonderful Bob and Lynne Wells (singing and acting with polished skill), as well as the incomparable Donald Forrest (whose ironic humor is always delivered with bombastic wisdom).

However, before “Madsummer” took the stage with its impressive array of actors, singers, dancers and musicians, there was a soaring and inspiring 45 minutes of gospel delivered with heartfelt vocals by a seasoned group of singers/musicians, the Nu Heavenly Tones. Their renditions of blues-tinged classics like “I Know A Place,” were heavenly indeed.

When they concluded, the stage was reset with some simple scenic and production elements designed by Lynnie Horrigan (who would be part of the acting/singing ensemble) — with the lighting readied by Michael Foster and the sound levels by Russ Cole and Olivia McGahan. There were individual chairs set up around the outside areas on stage where the actors/singers would sit until called on to perform.

The band’s musicians also set up at the back of the stage, featuring seasoned professionals that included Tim Randles, keyboards/vocals; Jeff Kelley, guitar/vocals; Mike LaBolle percussion; Rob Diggins, fiddle; and Marla Joy bass/flute/vocals.

Then, it was show time — that took off with an “introduction” to what would follow by Fields himself. And the other cast members sat down in their chairs surrounding him, until it was “turn” to perform (either solo numbers or as an ensemble). Along with Bob and Lynne Wells and Donald Forrest, these talented singers/actors included Wilda Thompson, Jeff Thomas, Zera Starchild, Laura Murillo Hart, Jessie March, Kathryn Cesarz and Louis Holland.

And when the music got started “in the nursing home filled with boomers,” it ranged from rousing rock classics to tongue-in-cheek laments and tear-jerking, romantic ballads (and everything in between). With a smattering of scenes and dialogue with saucy choreography and “senior moments” galore.

Here’s the lineup of the eclectic songs and their singers performed throughout the show: “My Generation” (Bob Wells & All); “Graduations, Weddings, and Funerals” (Jeff Kelley); “I Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore” (Michael Fields); “Older Ladies” (Marla Joy); “Old Folks Boogie” (Jeff Thomas).

“Commode Dance Break” (danced by Jesse March, Kathryn Cesarz and Laura Murillo Hart); “Say Something” (Bob & Lynne Wells, Cesarz and Hart); “Mother’s Little Helper” (Marla Joy); “I Want To Be Sedated” (Kelley); then “A (Spoken) Message From Ed Duendum, CEO of Foggy Bottom Rest Home” (Donald Forrest). Followed by “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (Hart); “Your Wish Is My Obsession” (Tim Randles); “The Older I Get” (Fields); “When You’re Old And Gray” (Randles); “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (Wilda Thompson); “When I’m 64” (Joy); “Old Friends” (Randles and Kelley); “End Of The World” (Thompson); and “Forever Young” Louis Holland, Zera Starchild and All). A rousing finale fit for the Nursing Home Boomers of their first edition of “Madsummer.”

After a relatively short break, the very personal “Tribute to Timmy Gray” (filled with memories of his remarkable life) were honestly and vividly shared by Timmy’s partner of 20 years, the intrepid Marla Joy. She pulled no emotional punches in her detailed description of his final days among his caregivers, those he loved and who loved him and took care of him until he was ready to “let go.”

There was also the absolutely heartbreaking sharing of a letter by Joy’s grown son (Jazz Lewis) that he had written and read to his beloved, terminally ill stepdad. Barely making it through his words without weeping, his letter told Timmy how much he would always remember and treasure the outrageously quirky, fun adventures that began after they first came together when Jazz was just 4 years old.

He also thanked him for everything that followed, from that day forward to the short time left to them before they must soon part ways. (With mom Marla’s help, by his side, Jazz finally finished reading to us what must have brought that iconic, sparkly smile to Timmy’s face.)

When Marla took over again, she did so to raise a toast to celebrate his remarkable life and times (with so many other friends there to honor him in the crowd). Her toast was with a shot of aged whiskey that came from a container that Timmy had kept for years on his studio’s recording console and was “saving” to drink to a mark a “particularly special” occasion.

It was to be followed by lighting his favorite cigar. Marla did both … a poignant, ironically perfect way to give Timmy a fond, Dell’Arte farewell.

And, in doing so, it also made this first Baduwa’t (Mad River) Festival without him even more unforgettable for us all.

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Dell’Arte’s Baduwa’t (Mad River) Festival begins anew

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