April 16, 2012 | Myrna Anderson

The Calvin Theatre Company has adapted a play from Walter Wangerin's award-winning novel.

In an era of the earth before humans existed, two roosters rule over two very different kingdoms. Aided by an ancient evil, one of the roosters fathers a monster that threatens to enslave all animal kind. Aided by a prophetic cow, a mournful dog and a fierce weasel, the other rooster fights and preserves his barnyard realm. That is the story of The Book of the Dun Cow, Walter Wangerin’s award-winning book, which has been adapted as a play by the Calvin Theatre Company.

“It’s basically the story of The Fall,” said Stephanie Sandberg, the director of the play, which runs April 19–21 and 25–28, at Calvin Lab Theatre. “It’s aimed at middle-school minds, and (it explains) how evil came to be and got into that world.”

Novel to play

The Book of the Dun Cow won a National Book Award in the Science Fiction category in 1980, and Sandberg read the book as a youngster and loved it. While casting around for a play that the Calvin Theatre Company could perform during Calvin’s 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing (FFW), she thought of using Wangerin’s animal tale. Wangerin, who has been a featured speaker at the festival many times, liked the idea. Sandberg asked the author to help her choose between the two adaptations of the story already in existence, but he suggested: “Why don’t you do your own?”

Working with her student actors, Sandberg has adapted the The Book of the Dun Cow as a piece of devised theater—a production that evolves from collaboration. “I think it’s a process that students are going to need to learn,” she said of the technique, which incorporates games and improvisation into the play-writing process. 

Sandberg has also met regularly with Wangerin while adapting the play, and his input was vital to shaping the piece. “He studies medieval stories, and that shows up a ton in his work,” Sandberg said. The Book of the Dun Cow is loosely based a story in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the roosters, basilisks, cockatrice and other creatures in the story are familiar characters in a medieval universe. (The book takes its name from an ancient Irish manuscript.)

Masks and movement

Wangerin was insistent that the characters of the story not be anthropomorphized, Sandberg said: “He said to me very clearly: ‘These are animals.’” To aid their transformation into animals, the 12 members of the theatre company are wearing masks made by master-mask-maker Bruce Marss, and their movement is being choreographed by master-movement director Gulshirin Dubash. 

“Animals do not move the way that humans do. They have different skeletons, different muscles, different joints,” said senior theater and media production major Brian Alford, who is playing both Chauntecleer and rooster rival Senex. “We are trying to embody their movement patterns in a believable way. This puts a tremendous amount of strain on our bodies … Mask is a difficult form. Either you fail, or you are amazing. There is no middle ground.” The actors were also coached on voice by theater professor Michael Page.

Set designer David Leugs served on the creative team that forged the play’s world; the team took the book’s medieval setting as a given, he said: “Our meetings were spent dreaming and looking, talking and listening. We pored over images of the medieval world and came to some mutual decisions about how that world could function, and, hence, how that world would look.”

Ptolemaic world

The play’s set re-uses the theater-in-the-round configuration used for last year’s Hamlet: “It’s so dynamic. There’s 16 possible entrances around you onto the stage,” Sandberg said. The set also reflects the medieval perspective of the heavens: “It’s a beautiful model of the Ptolemaic universe. And the clouds surround you, and the zodiac surrounds you,” she said. 

The play’s score—which uses clarinet, contra bass clarinet, guitar, cello and percussion (including lots of gong)—was written by music professor David Fuentes. "A little bit of it has a bit of an Irish-country flair to it. Some of it is dark and dissonant. There’s a bit of a mixture of all sorts of things,” he described the music.

Sandberg has a particular fondness for Mundo Cani, the dog and hero in The Book of the Dun Cow. “He’s happy just if somebody pets him. He’s hilarious and happy, and he doesn’t know that he becomes a hero,” she said. “Nobody knows you’re a hero until you become a hero—until the mantle is placed upon you.”

Sandberg believes that Wangerin’s story is still relevant, even three decades after its publication—as is the play she helped to create: “I think it was important to do this because the book itself was influential among a whole generation of Christians in thinking about good and evil …,” she said. “It explores the nature of needing to be a hero. We are asked to go on journeys where we don’t necessarily know the outcome. We don’t know the meaning of our lives until it is upon us. The most unlikely character becomes the savior.”

Sandberg has enjoyed collaborating with Wangerin: “He’s one of the gentlest, kindest and warmest people I’ve ever met. And he’s very wise about the suffering of people.” She hopes he will like the finished product: “He’ll be in the first audience,” she said.

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