It is first light on a late September morning, with more than a hint of winter in the crisp New Mexico air. Illuminated by early dawn, four figures stand god-like in a hillside tableau, offering benediction to a weary but entranced audience huddled below in sleeping bags and blankets. Coyote has brought the waterfall to earth, thus completing his mission: to reunite humanity with the cosmos.
The moment is the culmination of Murray Mednick’s seven-play Coyote Cycle, a theatrical odyssey performed for the first time as Mednick intended: outdoors, in its entirety, from dusk to dawn.
Though not everyone has made it to morning, a surprisingly large number of the audience—many of whom traveled to Santa Fe from around the country for the event—have stuck it through. During the intervals between plays, we have gathered around a sputtering kerosene heater or cat-napped in the warmth of the gallery to the gentle strains of a guitar. There is something of the peyote meeting, a sense of group ceremonial power, that has bound actors and audience together in a commitment to the completion of the Cycle.
What’s it all about, this long night’s journey into day?
Beginning at twilight, the audience has been guided from set to set through an atavistic series of worlds where nothing is quite what it appears to be. In Planet of the Spider People, rocks speak and spider babies fly out to greet us; in Listening to Old Nana, we enter a lean-to kiva with a primitive radar station where bleached bones and adobe bricks make connections with the spirit world. Inside such mysterious environs, the actors make frequently startling appearances. Coyote leaps from trees like a comet hurtling from the heavens, while his cohort Trickster literally digs his way up from the bowels of the earth.
Mixing metaphors like a mad metaphysician, Mednick throws everything into the pot: legends and Lucky Strikes, Milky Ways and mudheads, bag ladies, buffalos, subways and shamans. Out of this potent brew, which uses the Coyote/Trickster traditions and Hopi creation myths as a soup stock, there emerges an intergalactic vaudeville in which the predicaments of the modern age are given new meaning through the mirror of a culture much older and wiser than ours.
Inside the sometimes baffling and seemingly random juxtaposition of the particular with the archetypal (which blurs the lines between sacred and profane), Mednick is essentially telling an age-old story, common to most cultures: the fall from grace and the transformative struggle to recover our former divinity. The central, alter-ego figures of Coyote and Trickster are continually losing their way, falling into absurd situations and ranting about predicaments that are entirely of their own creation. In short, they are very much like ourselves.
Mednick never intended to create an epic of such vast proportions; from the very beginning, the Coyote Cycle took the form of revelation, evolving from the inside out. As a playwright/director, Mednick had long been interested in developing an immediacy of presence in the actor which was not dependent on dramatic fiction. At the first Padua Hills Playwrights Festival in 1978, which he founded to encourage new directions in theatre, he began work on a series of awareness exercises with actors Darrell Larson (Coyote) and Norbert Weisser (Trickster). Out of this meditative methodology grew both the original Coyote play, Pointing, and the physical grammar which is the basis of the company’s work.
During their years of work together, the California-based company has developed into a kind of theatrical extended family. Besides Weisser and Larson, who have been with Mednick since the Cycle’s inception, and Christine Avila (Spider Woman) and Priscilla Cohen (Clown), who joined the company three years ago, there is a dedicated support network of people involved in the enormous effort of mounting a full-scale production of the Coyote plays outdoors.
Site preparations began weeks in advance for the performance in Santa Fe. A crew headed by set designer Robert Behling constructed seven separate sets while Matthew Goulish’s technical team rigged the necessary sound and light equipment to create such illusions as ghostly projections, disembodied voices and the rise and fall of a starry sky. Also instrumental were the efforts of Theatre-in-the-Red producers Sarah Lovett and Alice Sealey—former Padua students who brought the Coyote plays to Santa Fe in excerpts from over the past two years and raised the necessary funds for the world premiere of the entire cycle.
Unlike many theatrical families, however, the Coyote Company actors and crew all have active professional careers in theatre and film. The company as such exists solely for one purpose: to annually recreate the Coyote Cycle they developed at Padua. Next year’s performance will be in Nebraska, where the company has been invited by Governor Carey to produce the plays on the grounds of the Platte River State Park.
Though Mednick has had a long career as a playwright—he won an Obie Award for Deer Kill in 1970—the Coyote Cycle for him belongs to a totally different world from what he terms “assembly-line theatre, where the parts are all interchangeable. One of the joys of working with Coyote is that we’ve really been outside that trip. We’ve pushed it to the limit: working outdoors, doing it all night, basing it on the exercises. What this company has is a unified approach to working, and we’re trying to do this in as pure a way as possible. We don’t hype Coyote; the Cycle attracts what it attracts.”
What was it like for Mednick to see the culmination of seven years of preparation in the all-night performance?
“When I was drumming in play 7,” he recalls, “I suddenly realized that we were coming to the end, that we actually did it, and that the light was going to be just right. Watching that tableau on the hillside was extraordinary; for that moment, the actors truly were divine. It was a tremendous experience—worth the whole ordeal of the night, worth all the years of work. The payoff was in that moment.”
Cree McCree is a writer and theatre critic based in Santa Fe.
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