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A Review of "Ketchikan Unzipped" Featuring "Bed Sheets"

By Sharon Allen


May 10, 2005

There are many ways to judge the success of poetry presented onstage; they are as wide and varied as the presented prose itself. Such was the case for the recent production from the Humanities Forum 2005, "Ketchikan Unzipped" featuring "Bed Sheets."

So much depends on so many different components that go into the making of the show. There is the woven prose and the raw passion of the bleeding wordsmith (Evon Zerbetz and Erin Hollowell), the skill of interpretation when those words mutate into voice by the will of the actors (Clare Patton, Shauna Lee, Rod Landis and Terry Roberts), the similes and metaphors brought to life by the imagination of the director (Taylor McKenna), and the hard
jpg Ketchikan Unzipped Actors
work of the Stage Manager in organizing the director's instructions into workable solutions (Richard Nelson). Additionally, there is also the proficiency of the Stage Hand in dealing with the stress of having the right object in her hand at the right time in order to make the cues (Bonnie Gabriel), the cold mechanics brought into play by sound Design (Joe Ayres) and lighting, the melding of all of the above with the hard realities of prop and set (Steve Bennett), and even the difficulties involved in the design and administration of publicity items (Wendy Gierard).

But to add one more important element, there is also the unknown factor of the audience. Each night is different, and this type of theatre is labeled "edgy" for several reasons - usually having to do with the content found within most "Theatre on the Edge". Unusual issues are part of the message - things like thoughts of being on the edge of the solar system; the reality of the unstable edge of emotions; images of geometric edges; the truth of the edges of self-identity and conflict within the individual; the boundaries found between people and relationships; the horror of the edge of neurological disease and of the beauty of normal and abnormal movement; and the edges discovered within society.

This time, "Bed Sheets" was obviously perching the audience on the edge of the society of Ketchikan to discuss the choices we make here each day between conformity and freedom. I looked around at the crowd as I entered and saw a lot of interested, but uncomfortable faces, like they were on edge - and weren't quite sure what to expect.

I must admit that when I took my seat in the audience on April 22nd for the event, I too was definitely on edge, but probably not in the same way most of the audience was. I just wasn't really sure how to go about reviewing such a production. But, as I watched "Bed Sheets" unfold before me, I happened to notice a couple of men sitting beside me. The first gentleman was a multihued old man; small in size with a bent back, blue eyes, yellow teeth and a large cloudy beard that was so white it was almost sea green in color. He sat smiling, clothed in a like-new gray-green wool suit, a pair of old Xtra-tufs on his stubby feet and a pair of scratched spectacles perched forgotten on his head. A polished wood cane propped up against his knobby knee and a faint odor of the sea finished the picture.

His companion was younger and taller and stronger, with clothing that was newer and shinier and more expensive. He smelled slightly of alcohol and aftershave. Dressed in stiff-starched blue jeans and an angel-white pristine shirt of Egyptian cotton, he also sported cashmere socks, black polished shoes and a Rolex. However, like the old man, he was a rainbow of flesh; his face was flushed pale, his emerald green eyes were blood-shot red and his hair was dyed a straw yellow. He too owned facial haze, although his were two large storm clouds of black overhanging eyebrows rather than a huge mist of beard.

I was struck by their obvious differences and similarities. I was also amazed by their attendance. I have to admit that I am sometimes guilty of stereotyping and neither man would have made it to my top ten choices for the members of the audience who might be most enamored of iambic pentameter. Therefore, I was more than surprised to overhear the eldest fellow whisper to his companion in the middle of the play, "Can we stop by the bookstore later? I want to buy a book of poems." To which the younger man nodded and murmured enthusiastically, "Me too."

To me, that one incident was judge, jury, standing ovation and blue-ribbon proof that the edgy theatre production was a success. I suddenly realized that I felt the same. I, too, wanted a good book of prose to read later. I smiled widely and took another look around at the crowd then. There were similar reactions taking place. An elderly woman in the front row was leaning over to whisper something to a younger woman. A middle-aged artist was stroking his chin with a distant smile on his face. One of the authors was grinning broadly with her head cocked playfully to one side. I watched a little bit longer as the differences fell away and everyone became quite similar in their appreciation.

"This," I said to myself, "is Theatre as theatre with an edge should be - pure thought stuff, detailed with beauty and color and movement, but abstract enough to be a reusable forum for ideas and inspiration which the audience can take away and remember for a very long time.

I was amazed by it all - the poetry, the acting, the direction, the mechanics, the set, (especially the bed with the hole in it - thank you, Steve Bennett!) and the reaction by the audience. But then again, I am often amazed by the amount of genius found in this little town.

Take, for instance, the local talents of Evon Zerbetz and Erin Hollowell. For those of you who missed "Bed Sheets," the play was written by the two women and then compiled loosely by Taylor McKenna into a working script. The raw material McKenna began with was a collection of poetry-based vignettes written by Zerbetz and Hollowell. All poetry was based on issues relevant to Ketchikan, which could be discussed in or around a bed. However, "Bed Sheets" was not a show entirely devoted to showcasing poetry or focusing on highly political matters. Nor, despite the edgy title, was the theme of the play primarily provocative.

Instead, it was an intelligent, although sometimes rambling, examination of the many issues that confront us on a daily basis, and which portrayed well a few examples of complicated relationships we sometimes keep with our parents, children, spouses, lovers and neighbors. On the surface, it recounted a few of our putative failures and psychiatric encounters, but beneath its prose, it did (as it said it would do), unzip us. It exposed the uneasy alliance we sometimes have with this extreme land and savage sea, and, perhaps most of all, it depicted a bit too truthfully the rage, love, confusion, happiness, frustration, fear, and angst, which we who live in Ketchikan fall victim to as we live each day amongst the imperfections of each other.

The concept for the edge-play began when University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan Campus Director Karen Polley made it known that she had some grant money available for a work of theatre proportions. UAS English Professor Rod Landis and his wife, Taylor McKenna, jumped at the chance to develop such an animal and applied for the funds, scheduling the performance to coincide with the UAS Humanities Forum. Their plan was to develop a play about life in Ketchikan using only four actors who would incorporate the lines of provocative poetry and other written works onstage in and around a practically empty stage -- just a bed and side table.

McKenna hoped to use part of the grant money to commission local writers to create original prose, which she would then piece into a coherent play. Landis had the idea of contacting Evon Zerbetz to ask if she would like to write something for the play. Zerbetz's affirmative answer led the growing group to contact Erin Hollowell for the same reason. Hollowell, best known as the Program Director for the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council, has also studied poetry and works with the Ketchikan Writer's Forum. She also agreed, and with the two writers finally on board, "Bed Sheets" was born.

The two writers kept to themselves while creating their works. They got together only a handful of times, keeping in contact mainly through email. As a result, the prose and poetry that emerged from their creative minds and ultimately merged together into scenes under McKenna's expert direction had two very distinct and different styles.

That makes sense though: Zerbetz has a very outgoing personality and is a fastidious and prolific writer. As a result, her poetry had more of a crowd-pleasing composition than Hollowell's disconcerting inspection of controversial issues. Zerbetz was also gentler in unzipping us. As she revealed several social matters and exposed a few uncomfortable truths to light, her words were light anecdotes of humor with soft edges that brought laughter and giggles.

Hollowell's prose, however, was deeply emotional. It had introspective, haunting hard edges that bedeviled and delved into our souls, demanding answers from the buried-bottom-razed-hopelessness of our own personal humanity. Hollowell wrote two favorites of mine: "Afterward" and "The Mirror," both of which focused on the issues of abuse.

It is interesting to note that the violence we typically see in the media is set against a background of flashes, smoke and explosions with grunts and yells in an ultra-violent, ultraviolet world. But here, in Hollowell's poetry, we saw violence - in the form of both physical and mental abuse - taken out of the fantastic world of movies and brought chillingly into the quiet world of the stage.

Here, we watched as the actors reexamined the memories of the violence they had experienced. We felt their anguish as they tried to come to terms with their part in the act. Hollowell urgently tried to give her audience some understanding of the suffering that victims of abuse experience and of their attempt to heal their own pain in their own way. She tried to show us how healing from such trauma is not so much a process of forgetting as much as it is a process of remembering, forgiving, and passing on over and above it.

By comparison, Zerbetz's "Upsetting the Apple Cart" seemed to be the favorite of the populous. It examined the feelings of a woman who had been cheated on by her husband after years of marriage. The lines, which compared her warm apple dessert to the "other woman's" apple-exotic sweet confection, were outstanding, particularly when she described the latter as just "swimming singed fruit."

But no matter how good the poetry was or how apt the director was in stringing the various works into an articulate play, it would have fallen flat without the exceptional talents of the actors and the help of their beautiful, apt stagehand.

And speaking of which, Bonnie Gabriel was absolutely wonderful behind the scenes as the stagehand. She was unobtrusive, good-natured and efficient: ready to lend a hand at anytime for anything which needed doing. It is so often true that a kingdom is lost for the want of a horseshoe nail . . . Kudos to Bonnie for a job well done.

As for the actors - Clare Patton, Shauna Lee, Rod Landis and Terry Roberts were truly wonderful at turning the edgy play into compelling theatre. A good deal of the credit for that must go to Rod Landis, the actor whose robust, powerhouse portrayals gave it all a the solid and firm anchor. His characters ranged from bombastic to pensive, were stubborn yet questing, and in every way larger than life.

He was supported ably by Terry Roberts, the extraordinary young actor who played several roles, including Landis' son in the scene entitled "The Promise" and the other half of a gay relationship in "Caesar Salad." Roberts displayed a natural, easy way onstage that served him extremely well. Additionally, the chemistry between Roberts and Landis in "The Promise" was remarkable; so strong, in fact, that one was hard-pressed to believe they were not, in real life, father and son.

Shauna Lee did very well in her roles as well, particularly in the Doll vs. Dolly scene. She delivered a resonant performance as the young Doll of the evening who confronts Dolly and argues that the gold of the tourist business is better than the silver of the fishing industry in Dolly's day.

Yet, best-of-the-best, Clare Patton was over-and-beyond fantastic. She inhabited her characters masterfully, revealing an enormous range of emotions with her delicate intonation of voice, evocative gesture of limbs and emotional expression of face. At times, she spoke so rapidly one imagined she couldn't get thoughts out of her mouth fast enough; at others, she rolled words off her tongue with precision, suggesting she was searching for answers no one could ever answer. Anger recurred in some of her portrayals, expressing itself in childlike outbursts, or in calculated adult vengeance and casually sardonic humor. Glimpses of other feelings -- love, lust, jealousy and a sense of frustration among them -- fleshed out her characters' interior conflicts.

Although Patton's dance in "P. You" was exceptional; her roles were, I think, most memorable in "What a Man Really Wants" and "1936." That night, after the play was over and the discussion session began, my mind wandered a bit and I sat thinking of those passages where Patton and Lee argued whether a man really wants outside surface glamour and glitz or internal kindness and deep understanding.

As I mused over the issue, I was reminded of my own belief that what a man (and a woman for that matter) really wants is both - we ache for the lasting union of an emotional nature but we also long for life's little physical thrills of the flesh. We want the stability and love of a spouse, but we fantasize about the excitement and sex of an affair. We know we need a new roof for the house, but we want to buy that sleek new boat. We love the gold jewelry and Rolex watches in the stores downtown and the silky glamour of Chloe and Armani and Gucci fashion, but we need the new silver of bridgework or dentures and the boring wool sweaters and plastic Xtra-tufs to survive the long winters.

And therein lays our dilemma and our frustration and our humanity. We are all the same - incomplete individuals who are halves looking to be whole. Like the old man and his younger friend. Like the writing styles of Zerbetz and Hollowell. Like Doll and Dolly - new Ketchikan and old Ketchikan.

As such, "Bed Sheets" was an old story told in a fresh new way. This forceful play was filled with the drama one encounters when one searches for fulfillment and chooses poorly, of the angst one experiences upon remembrance of those choices and of the forgiveness one either petitions for or grants after making such a bad choice.

It could have been a very "down" play, but it wasn't. "Bed Sheets" somehow wove humor and love and acceptance into each crisis it dealt with and in so doing, had much to tell us about how to live with--and how to live past--the sometimes grim and painful edges of life.
Plays like "Ketchikan Unzipped," are important because they teach us that whether we label ourselves old or young, rich or poor, ill or healthy, happy or sad - there are really no true divisions amongst ourselves, only varying degrees of the same: age, wealth, wellbeing, emotion. In flowing prose this type of theatre mimics bloodlines and proves once again and beyond any doubt, that although we sometimes seem different, we are always still the same.

So if Ketchikan is lucky enough to host another similar piece of theatre, please consider attending. The edge may be a bit uncomfortable in the beginning, but it might inspire you to visit a bookstore and pick up a book of poetry to read or make a friend. But whatever it does, be assured that experiencing a play similar to "Bed Sheets" will never short-sheet you.



Sharon Allen is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Sharon at sharon(AT)
Sharon Lint-Allen ©2005

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