That solitary chair speaks volumes. It signals theater in its most ancient form: a gathering around a storyteller who conjures worlds out of next to nothing and makes us care deeply for people we didn't know existed. To describe Anne Galjour in even the broadest terms as a performance artist is to minimize what she does. Galjour is a magician with language, a novelist of the stage.
She also happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, with her hair braided back, and she wears a roomy tie-dye dress (designed by Laura Hazlett) that seems to match the background -- all the better to help her change chameleonlike into the people she offers us as gifts, one after the other. Fans of Hurricane (first produced at San Francisco's Climate Theater in 1993, and since performed in New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Louisiana) will remember them fondly.
First is Sherelle Dantin, who hopes her devout Catholicism will save her from cancer. (Unhappily, it doesn't; we may not be in Kansas anymore, but we're not in Oz either.) Sherelle pins religious medals to her bra that interact magnetically with her dairy farmer beau, Urus, who has been struck twice by lightning. (The first time caused his hair to frizz; the second turned it completely white and made him a permanent conductor of static. Since then he isn't welcome near television sets or any other electric appliance.)
Sherelle's sister, Inez, hopes that shampooing Sherelle's rapidly thinning hair in egg will restore it. Inez also believes that if her sister would eat the liver and other blood-enriching foods she prepares continually, she would beat the cancer that has already led to one mastectomy. Sherelle, on the other hand, is convinced a cure can be found in Galveston, Texas, where the Virgin Mary has reportedly been sighted.
If Inez has a religion, it's fishing, and Louisiana red fish are her catch of choice. She casts her rod from the levee in the company of her best friend, Michael, an exceptionally smart and faithful dog. Their lives are forever altered when Michael rescues Marlon Skinner, a scuba diver whom Inez has hooked with her rod.
The Dantins' neighbor, Grady Cheramie, is a hunter and an enthusiastic taxidermist. The house he shares with his wife, Rosetta, is filled to the attic with the stuffed remains of fish, deer, ducks, and -- thanks to a clean single shot -- an alligator. Rosetta labors to keep her house immaculate. She is also a Cajun gourmet, and manages to cook every morsel of game that Grady brings home.
All this is pleasantly picturesque, but lives are about to be changed, and not just by the storm looming in the background: Oil may be burbling below the dank surface of the wetlands. Land already overrun with alligators is being invaded by men heedless of the rising winds, trying to beat each other to the first drilling rights.
By the time the hurricane hits, we have been caught up in a place that seems entirely created from water: Everything comes from the gulf or the bayou or the rain. Galjour creates a Louisiana bursting with life, sensuality, and sexuality; a world where people seem in constant danger of being swallowed by the sea or the earth; where their tenuous hold on survival feels as delicate as a spider web. She evokes smells, sights, and sounds, enhanced by Stephen LeGrand's subtle sound design, which at strategic points gives us Cajun fiddles, terrifying winds, or ethereal chimes. By the end of two very full hours, we've been party to a birth, two deaths, and the miraculous arrival of an orphaned infant. Romance has bloomed, and more may be on the way.
While all the elements of theater are present -- Sharon Ott's direction is meticulous, as is her fine sense of detail and pacing -- the success of the two-part piece rests with Galjour's writing and the authority of her unshakably unifying narrative voice. Hurricane/Mauvais Temps is about language, and the power it has to cast spells. Here is a tiny sampling of the riches available:
"I tied the rope to the root and listened: [hurricane] Wanda's coming." "The water rose so high you could hear it swallow the children." Sherelle cringes when she hears "ghosts swimming in the wind." Inez describes her foster son fishing: "Beau flicked his wrist, and his line flew like a wish." "His net twirled in the waves like a hoop skirt."
It's also about Galjour's spellbinding performance: Sherelle, hunching forward in her chair (having found a lump in her remaining breast), hugging herself and repeating, "I am not livin' in fear." Inez, flinging the Cheramies' door open and calling on Grady for help when Michael disappears in the storm. Rosetta, admitting she's hurt Grady's feelings because she doesn't like the new dishwasher he gave her for their anniversary. Grady, advising Rosetta to cook rattlesnake for the oil men: "They want wild, we got to give 'em wild." And Grady, fed up with the "French broke furniture" that is Rosetta's idea of interior decorating. Besides being a poet with language, it seems Galjour can do anything with her voice.
The only downside to Hurricane/Mauvais Temps is its length. It is so full and rich that at two hours plus intermission (where red beans and rice are available), it's almost too much of a good thing. This is going to be an even greater problem when the promised third part of the story is added this fall, in the Solo Mio Festival.
While Galjour terms each of the parts a separate play, they do not, in fact, work as separate entities. Without Hurricane, Mauvais Temps ("Bad Weather") is virtually unfathomable. (I know. I saw it as a work in progress last year. I had seen Hurricane, but not recently enough to make sense of the characters and their in-progress story.) And while I can't imagine what or where she could cut, I'd be willing to bet a great deal could be pruned without dire consequences.
Still. This is brilliant, unforgettable theater that creates something splendid from the barest of materials. And at the end of an evening in which the lives of eight distinct characters have held us spellbound, it almost comes as a shock when a lone, rather diminutive woman takes her bow.
Hurricane/Mauvais Temps runs through June 30 at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison, Berkeley; call (510) 204-8901.