Smile Politely

Into the woods with WOLF

I am not an outdoorsy kinda guy. I am large, soft, and, as of last weekend, have a sprained knee, so mobility is a bit dicey for me in the great outdoors. Branches attack me, bugs are everywhere, and things that go bump in the night need to remain out there while I order room service and wish the scary night creatures back into the cornfield. I have also been taught by every horror film I’ve ever seen never to go out in the woods at night. So why was I hobbling about Allerton Park’s Bio-preserve one starry night last week, dear reader? I was there with an enthusiastic crowd of onlookers to see a spectacular evening of experimental environmental theatre conceptualized by Deke Weaver and Jennifer Allen. The show was entitled WOLF, and it was bloody awesome.

WOLF is part of Weaver and company’s efforts to bring awareness to endangered species through the power of theatre. According to the program:

WOLF is the third performance of Deke Weaver’s life-long project The Unreliable Bestiary. Inspired by the literary concept of the unreliable narrator and the medieval bestiary, which gave every living thing a spiritual purpose, The Unreliable Bestiary is an arc of stories about animals, our relationship with them, and the world they inhabit.

One of their previous efforts, ELEPHANT, was described to me by a student of mine as “like going to the circus for the night.”  If that’s the case, then WOLF is like going to a very educational and artistic summer camp.

My three-hour experience began with finding the tour buses and actors dressed as park rangers on the west end of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on U of I’s campus. The buses loaded at around 6 p.m., and, as there was limited seating and no advanced reservations, people began to gather around five in the evening to get the first-come-first-serve tickets for the excursion.

Once on the bus, the fun began with a grand and perky narrative of how the wolf has impacted our world, both environmentally and mythologically. The Ranger told stories dating back to ancient Greece; the Ranger also sang songs and used music and video projections to ready us for the journey into the woods. The stories showed the importance of every creature to our world, the damage we do in trying to eliminate predators from our daily lives, and the cost of this loss, should the wolf become extinct. It’s a grown-up telling a group of children a tale; and no matter your age, your child-like curiosity will be piqued by the saga of the wolf.

Once in the woods, the audience was divided into four groups, each representing known targets of a wolf’s hunting habits. We were told that, as of 2008, wolves had been reintroduced into the biosphere at Allerton and that we must all stick togetherto avoid becoming dinner. With that target placed on each group, we were led through an experience of music, dance, and silent reflection on nature and our impact upon it. The Rangers requested silence for reflection about the “spirals and pockets of energy” in the woods, and to allow for sightings of “wolves” in their natural habitat. The twenty-minute hike was magical and very energizing, as I watched the woods transform from its rich green to a dark and foreboding grey as night descended. There were thrills and chills and even some pathos to be found in the woods this past weekend.

The evening concluded with a multi-media series of campfire stories in the loft of a comfy barn. There, Deke Weaver and company told the tale of WOLF and the creatures it honors. We saw, as a group, the animal’s mythology and majesty and how man and domestication have threatened the species. With music and sound design by Chris Peck; lighting and staging effects by Valerie Oliveiro, Nicki Werner, and Maria Lux; and storytelling by Weaver, the story was and is engaging, thought-provoking, and an unforgettable evening of theatre. This piece makes one reflect on the loss of creatures great and small—on our world, on our lives, on our collective conscience and consciousness. Once you’ve experienced it (and I hope you were lucky enough to get to), you’ll know the importance of art in expanding our worldview.

Weaver’s project is gone for now, having had its final performance (for now) Monday night. But you can learn more about The Unreliable Bestiary here.

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