Heavy Weather

Anne Galjour isn't alone in her new solo show, Hurricane/Mauvais Temps

Maybe it's the spell cast by scenic designer John Mayne's huge backdrop -- a wash of purple, violet, and red that Novella Smith's lighting will change over the course of the evening to suggest green bayou grass, gloomy black clouds, rain, and, at the very end, patches of distant blue sky. Or maybe it's the single wooden chair in the center of a bare floor -- the only prop writer/performer Anne Galjour will use to spin her magical tales of Cajun Louisiana in the Berkeley Repertory Theater's production of Hurricane/Mauvais Temps. I can't say for sure what it was, but when you first take your seat, you could find yourself, as I did, drawn in by the physical space before you.

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.

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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."

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