Theater

“Alaxsxa / Alaska” Weaves a Spellbinding History of the 49th State

by

Close to the end of Ping Chong and Company’s delightful Alaxsxa / Alaska, two of the deviser-performers — Gary Upay’aq Beaver and Ryan Conarro — reminisce. Seated on stools, they address each other in the clear, instructive, penetrating voice that serves as the show’s kind but didactic tone. “Do you remember when we first met?” Of course they do: It was in a school gym, in Alaska, in the tiny town of Kasigluk — a place in the far north with 560 residents and no roads out. Beaver, born and raised there, was dancing for the students; Conarro was a teaching artist, a white transplant from “down south.” And since the show starts and closes with two of Beaver’s yuraq performances — one masked, one set to a skin drum — we understand why Conarro fell completely under his spell.

Co-creator Chong and the team’s Alaxsxa / Alaska is a multimedia, interdisciplinary portrait of a place: It uses puppets (a beautiful many-jointed fox), projections (documentary shots intermixed with heaving waves), interviews with locals, and short comic scenes to shape a kind of impressionist primer for Alaska. Between short “confessionals” by Beaver and Conarro, their antic collaborator Justin Perkins becomes a mad professor, lecturing us on the area’s history: contact with Russians in the eighteenth century, the sea otter pelt trade, nuclear bomb tests, oil spills. All three perform in a super-broad style, a blend of the high spirits of vaudeville and the clarity of children’s theater, even when their stories clearly enrage them. Kasigluk is falling into the river, and there’s a real and present danger that neglect will let the place, the people, and their traditions all go into the water together.

There’s a slight nod-along quality here — quick references to Syrian refugees, for instance, make the audience hum in comfortable agreement. But Beaver’s charisma and charm blast through all that. The two moments when the production simply turns to him are unforgettable. At the top of the show, in low blue light, he dances, singing in Yup’ik. The projections tell us what he’s saying — “Someone is coming! Someone is coming!” Oh, we realize. Someone is here.

Alaxsxa / Alaska
The Downstairs at La MaMa
66 East 4th Street
212-352-3101
lamama.org
Through October 29

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