Alaxsxa / Alaska

History and indigenous culture take the stage in this off-off-Broadway show.

Gary Upay'aq Beaver stars in Alaxsxa / Alaska, directed by Ping Chong and Ryan Conarro, at La MaMa E.T.C. — the Downstairs.
(© Richard Termine)

"Cold, dark, and Sarah Palin" is how one Alaskan sums up outsiders' view of his state. His voice is sampled in Ping Chong & Company's Alaxsxa / Alaska, a multimedia show now playing at La MaMa E.T.C. — the Downstairs. In addition to audio clips, it incorporates video, puppetry, and traditional Yup'ik singing and drumming to educate non-Alaskans about Alaska. Does it succeed? In this case, that's a less important question than whether success matters.

What matters to the show's creators — Ping Chong, Ryan Conarro, Gary Upay'aq Beaver, and Justin Perkins — is a history of exploitation. Alaxsxa / Alaska proceeds as a series of vignettes, many of them social studies lessons. The first is on the "discovery" of Alaska by the Russians who sailed there in 1741 and claimed it for the czar. Another looks at the sale of "Russkaya America" to the United States in 1867, a deal made without indigenous Alaskans knowing about it. And so on: nuclear weapons testing by the U.S. government in 1965, the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s, the resulting Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989…

Interspersed with this big-picture history are two personal stories. One belongs to Conarro, who moved to Nome after college, volunteered at a local radio station, and later became a teaching artist in a rural school district. The other belongs to Upay'aq Beaver, a member of the Yup'ik people native to southwestern Alaska. He shares memories, plays a cauyaq, and corrects Conarro's pronunciation.

Bouncing between these stories is Perkins, who also delivers most of Alaxsxa / Alaska's academic content like a schoolmarm Chico Marx. Wrapping up his lecture on Enhydra lutris, he expects the audience to infer the animal's common name. "By now you otter know," he chides.

Despite the efforts of Perkins as an actor and Chong and Conarro as writers and directors to inject humor into the show's lugubriousness, Alaxsxa / Alaska languishes, with too many facts weighing it down. Their earnestness to do right by the victims of devastation makes theatrical considerations take a back seat, and consequently the message trumps the drama.

Gary Upay'aq Beaver (left) and Ryan Conarro (right) frame Justin Perkins as he lectures about Enhydra lutris.
(© 2017 Richard Termine)

Reflecting the overstuffed script are the show's props, sound, and video design. The stage backdrop is a triptych of large-screen monitors that sometimes display words and phrases later defined in the show ("Aleut," "air shock") and sometimes the undulating sea or the greenly glowing Northern Lights. The audience hears the cries of gulls, the voices of Alaskans describing their way of life, and the strains of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Next to this digital technology, the show's stick-mounted puppets look quaint, if not clunky. Attempts to integrate old and new mediums fall as flat as the sailing-ship cutout that Perkins bobs in front of video projections of ocean waves.

This clumsiness and the play's other flaws would be forgivable if compensated for in other ways. But Alaxsxa / Alaska's strongest suit — its educational value — is undermined by the show itself. Consider Perkins's commentary on the Exxon-Valdez spill. The disaster killed "nearly a quarter million seabirds," he grimly relates, and "thousands of Enhydra lutris. People will forget about all this very quickly. Just like they'll forget about the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico."

If that statement is true, why would they be any more likely to remember this play, in which not a single seabird dies? Alaxsxa / Alaska showcases native culture and diligently chronicles infringements on it but lacks dramatic impact. As a result, audiences leave sadder and more informed, though hardly any wiser.

Ryan Conarro goes west as a young man in Alaxsxa / Alaska.
(© 2017 Richard Termine)