Head to Humboldt County for Musical ‘Pot’-Pourri

If you head west tonight or this weekend to see “Mary Jane: The Musical” – which I heartily recommend – be sure to dress warm. Not just for the coastal fog but also for the miasma of pot smoke that permeates Dell’Arte’s outdoor amphitheater in Blue Lake, near Arcata.

That aroma may strike you as cool or chilling, depending on your political tilt. Either way, there’s no denying that marijuana matters here in the Emerald Triangle, where it’s arguably the leading local industry and economic mainstay, as well as a major challenge for the environmental and local law enforcement.

Mary Jane squarely confronts this paradoxical dual nature of NorCal’s signature crop. But it does so with a lot more generosity and humor – not to mention sheer razzle-dazzle showmanship – than we’ve seen in some recent public hearings on the topic. The show successfully humanizes its subject.

In fact, it personifies marijuana in the role of the title character, played by Joan Schirle, Dell’Arte’s founding artistic director. In the opening scene, Mary Jane is crowned (with a ganja wreath, of course) as Queen of the Emerald Ball.

Her courtiers include a shyster lawyer (Ryan Musil), a pair of ditzy hipsters (Janessa Johnsrude and Meredith Baldwin), a yogi (Pratik Motwani), a crusading anti-pot newspaperman (David Powell), a Rasta priestess (Joyce Hough), an Earth Mother (Zuzka Sabata) and a good old local thudpucker (Fred Neighbor) who just happens to enjoy an occasional toke.

These acolytes fete Her Hempen Highness in a series of musical set pieces created by no fewer than 14 local composers. The results are mixed, with some songs more cogent than others. All are staged, however, with Dell’Arte’s characteristic verve, which is what sustains the show’s unity – testimony to the talents of choreographer Laura Munoz, costume designer Lydia Foreman and lighting designer Michael Foster.

Part One of the show offers a wryly affectionate survey of All Things Cannibinoid. It starts with Dell’Arte music director Tim Randles’ pot- pourri medley of reefer-themed hits, featuring everyone from Cab Calloway to Paul McCartney to Puff the Magic Dragon. Another highlight is Johnsrude’s portrayal of a tie-dyed “Humboldt Honey” with many a mystifying mudra. Powell and Schirle dance a campy pas de deux as a pair of pot plants, one indoor and one outdoor, who long in vain to cross-pollinate.

It’s not until Part Two, after a much-needed smoke break, that we turn from narco-nostalgia to some of marijuana’s thornier questions. Bathed in cocktail lounge lighting, the company dances a soft-shoe to the tune of Randles’ song “Why is Whiskey Legal and Pot is Not?” In Joanie Rose’s torch song “My Son,” the only joke-free piece of the evening, Schirle ponders how the hyper-inflated Prop 215 economy estranges a new generation of get-rich-quick growers from their idealistic back-to-the-land forebears.

Rose also authored “Ghost Town,” a duet in which Neighbors and Sabata muse about what might become of the Emerald Triangle if pot were ever legalized and taken over by agri-business. Would local growers be marginalized as upscale “boutique” purveyors? Or quaint, folkloric relics for the tourists, like NorCal’s surviving loggers and fishermen?

None of the above, according to Scott Menzies’ hard-driving hip-hop number “The Industry.” Pot barons, in league with unwitting bluenose dupes, will make sure that recreational marijuana is never legalized. So says the ever-versatile Powell, amidst a swirl of writhing choristers, billowing smoke and flashing strobes.

That’s the same Powell we last met as a lovelorn hothouse plant. Now he dons a black-and-silver Zorro suit to hector us about how the ganja industrial complex is already Too Big to Fail. Just by living on the local economy, we’re all complicit in its ongoing survival. So go on and buy your organic groceries, he snarls. And we, The Industry, will go on having our way with the environment, the narco-market and the electorate.

Not to end on a dark note, Dell’Arte caps the musical with Tim Gray’s feel-good finale in the Bollywood style, led by the hyper-kinetic Motwani. The take-home message seems to be that, hey, it’s “only a plant” and very much a local fact of life. To keep the greed-heads at bay, we need to demystify dope, foregoing the charade of either eradication or medicalization.

Whether or not you buy into this argument, “Mary Jane: The Musical” offers the most spirited and locally pertinent civics lesson you’re ever likely to see – well worth the drive along Highway 299 into the heart of the Emerald Triangle.

What: The Dell’Arte Company in “Mary Jane: The Musical”
When: Tonight (June 30) through Sunday (July 3), 8 p.m.
Where: Dell’Arte International’s Rooney Amphitheater, 131 H Street, Blue Lake, CA 95525
Cost: $10-$18 (tickets available online here)

View the Rooney Amphitheater’s location in a larger map.

lincoln-kaye-mugLincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment.

Lincoln Kaye

Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.

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