Deke Weaver’s Unreliable Bestiary series has a legendary – almost apocryphal – air about it. If you haven’t experienced one, but you’re talking to anyone involved in local art, you’ll hear about it. Usually, there will be some superlatives along with the word “indescribable”, and then they’ll try to encapsulate one moment that stood out to them. Maybe it will be the hand-holding ELEPHANT walk that Latrelle Bright remembers, or the feeling of summer-camp camaraderie that WOLF imparted to Thom Schnarre. Whatever it is, it will not sound like a normal piece of theatre, and it will be clear that the experience was both effective and affecting. While each Bestiary experience is unique, there are some common threads that are woven into every installment:

  • The performance will not take place solely in a traditional space
  • The audience will be limited to a small, intimate group
  • You will not just sit throughout the entire work
  • There will be choreography
  • You will hear a story told by a master storyteller
  • It will be FREE.

BEAR appears to be grander in scope than the previous three animals, while incorporating elements of each of the earlier tales into its presentation. We traipsed through a park, like folks did at Allerton during WOLF; we held hands in a line, like participants in ELEPHANT; and we ended up in an cozy space where we listened to Weaver spin a yarn, very similarly to MONKEY. Contributing artist Michael Collins wrote to me about this mélange of artistry, saying, “I think what I enjoy most is the layering of all the different styles of creativity…it ends up being really dynamic with all the different talent.”

What’s more is that BEAR is actually a triptych, with different experiences set for Fall, Winter, and Spring. You’re not required to participate in all three, but you’re given the tools to do so by signing up for Fall. Additionally, the world that BEAR builds is so immersive, I still feel like a small part of me lives there, and I am eagerly anticipating the next opportunity to go back. November’s not too far off, and February will feel like waking up after a long absence – clearly an intentional effect.

When I say it builds a world, I’m not being hyperbolic; co-director Jennifer Allen cites this as central to the mission of The Unreliable Bestiary:

“We've created a fantastical performance world that places people in an alternate space - just like if they go to a movie. […]  I'm interested in transformation. I aspire to make work that gives people an experience outside of their "normal". To expand their experience of being a human in the world. When we make these shows together - that's a big part of what we're hoping to achieve.”

My experience of the world they built together was an extraordinary success. Perhaps it was because I was on the last tour of the night, where darkness blocked out most of what I would find familiar about Meadowbrook Park and allowed me unusual access to the stars. The walk around the park, through both wooded areas and the prairie plants, is interspersed with several stops at educational stations, almost like a guided tour through a national park, made even moreso by the costumed “rangers” leading the group. Because part of the mythology of this world is that North America’s electrical grid has collapsed, participants are asked to spin the generator on a digital recorder that projects Weaver’s voice, reciting mostly true facts about various types of bears.

Your mission is to walk, concentrate, learn, and sanctify our land in an attempt to invite these apex predators to our still mostly-healthy environment. Again, maybe aided by the nighttime environment, it was very easy for the small group of eight to remain silent, opening us to sensations we wouldn’t casually notice within the city limits. Aside from the stars, we heard all of the evening wildlife and felt pockets of cool and hot air coming off the surrounding plants. It was easy to imagine that all our thoughts were focused on bears, especially because some of the information we gathered from the stations was equally surreal and amusing, making it easy to ruminate upon. The rangers and some performers kept us engaged on the trail, but the walk is mostly wordless.

One of the stops along the way is different – less educational, more observational – but leads into an emotionally-heightened state. In a small, wooded clearing, Weaver’s partner in both art and life, Jennifer Allen, demonstrates her dance and performance skills with two other artists. While the outer parts of the costumes are truly exceptional, don’t neglect observing all of the articles of clothing and know that the choices are intentional. There is a moment when you may be pushed past your comfort zone, I’ll admit I was hesitant, but after a second it seemed only natural to join the experience, to give myself over to the world that had been created.

Head Ranger Nicki Werner spoke about this with me, and hearing it from her made me realize that moment was leading me to the same realization she’s had:

“One of the most valuable lessons that I have really taken to heart is that you have to make the culture you want to be a part of. And that is what the Unreliable Bestiary is doing: imagining ways of thinking and being that are out of the ordinary, and that have exponential potential to make an impact on the world we live in.”

This is Werner’s third involvement with Weaver’s works, having helped with both ELEPHANT and WOLF. Aside from corralling attendees and giving background information, she helped create the den installation that awaits participants at the end of the tour. As a big girl with two fake hips, this element concerned me the most, as “crawling” is not on the list of Things Which Are Easy For Me To Do. Of course, the rangers did offer an alternative, but by the time I had walked for more than an hour I was all-in and wasn’t going to deviate now. Removing our shoes, we all crawled through an enclosed, but not pressing, space filled with blankets and soft padding until we got to a warm comfortable space facing Weaver.

If, like many within C-U, you have had a chance to hear Deke Weaver tell a story, even at PechaKucha, you know that this is a special kind of magic that befits his name. If, like me before this, you have yet to experience it, know that people aren’t exaggerating when they describe how incredible it is to listen to him. The sense of quietude followed us into the den, and we huddled mostly together to listen. His inviting voice, individual eye contact, and general spark drew us in even closer. By the end of the tale, when Weaver promised to see us in the spring, to me it felt like a mutual pact made between us.

The Spring element of BEAR will be held at the Station Theatre, and I imagine that there will be a high return-rate of Fall participants. Also, the Winter element is interactive, coordinated through the Unreliable Bestiary website, requiring the audience to travel through the AMK Habitat Corridor during November through January. There is more information contained in the Field Guide that comes with your tickets.

Although BEAR is sold out as far as Krannert is concerned, many of the tours have not had the full audience of twelve. If you are interested in attending, feel free to show up and see if there is space for you, there are tours today through Sunday. The experience lasts almost 2 hours, requires over a mile of outdoor walking (in small bursts) over uneven terrain, and there is some adult material and language in the story. The performance isn't designed for kids (but consider this note), and accessibility could be an issue. Tours leave from the Race Street parking lot of Meadowbrook Park (south on Race, past Windsor, the driveway is on the east side of the road), beginning today at 4 p.m., leaving every 45 minutes with the last departing at 7:45 p.m. See Krannert’s event website for the exact schedule, and feel free to try to join a tour. 

Walking tour photo by Val Olivero, courtesy of Krannert Center. Deke Weaver's portrait by Scott Wells