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The Stuff Dreams Are Made of

Last year, Duke drama professor Jan Chambers had a dream: She saw three women stranded on a disc in the middle of the sea. One year later, and with the help of a visionary theater company, a Jungian analyst and an international cast, the dream has become a reality.

This weekend, the Archipelago Theatre Company presents And Mary Wept, a show exploring boundaries, relationships and ancient archetypal images in a modern world. And true to Chambers' vision, it maroons a handful of characters at the edge of the sea and eventually at the edge of their lives.

But Archipelago has always been living on the edge. The theater company, founded by Duke theater studies professor Ellen Hemphill, has a strong reputation for choosing adventurous themes and creating landscapes instead of mere sets--the last Archipelago production shown at Duke (Snow, in 2000) blanketed Shaefer Theater in a whitewashed winter universe. And Mary Wept promises a similar experience, incorporating water and salt into its deserted-island world.

Although Chambers has created the sets and costumes, the rest of the show's unique universe came out of an equally unique rehearsal process.

"You can't see the script," wrote Hemphill, also the director, in an e-mail. "For one thing, it keeps changing, and for another, the words wouldn't make any sense without the movement."

For rehearsals, instead of just reading the script, the cast relied heavily on what Hemphill calls "gesture work," which is the process of finding the movements that define a person--from the way a woman scratches her head to the way a man's shoulders slump when he laughs. Exercises in voice, sound and body were also used to explore the ideas of And Mary Wept well before the script was put on paper.

"It's intense," said psychologist, writer and Archipelago collaborator Nor Hall, when asked about the rehearsal process. "I was at the opening day of rehearsals to greet the cast and explain the ideas behind the play with Ellen Hemphill.... The cast rehearses 6 days a week,... but the writing process requires about a year of research.... All we knew was that we had to do a play about the disastrous lack of feminine principle in current life."

Besides Hall, who trekked from Minnesota to work on And Mary Wept, the production team includes an international cast assembled by Hemphill, who received her primary theater training at the Roy Hart Theatre Collective. A revolutionary group of artists in Southern France, it is dedicated to incorporating personal experience into public performance. Hemphill's extensive work with the collective gave her lifelong colleagues, some of whom have travelled from Europe to be a part of the show. Also performing in And Mary Wept is Duke theater studies professor Christine Morris, who sports a black wig and a snazzy '80s inspired jogging suit for the show.

When asked what would lure college students to an experimental show, Hall said its message might just make us chuck our cell phones.

"I mean, I couldn't live without mine," she mused, "but is that what I want to have with me at the moment I try to define what matters?"

For those of us who really can't part with our Nokias, Hall offered more collegiate connections:

"I guess I'd say that this show... holds up a mirror to how we relate to each other. There's also a mind-expanding suggestion that young people who have a chance to experiment look outside their own immediate culture for clues about how to proceed on their journeys."

--Faran Krentcil

And Mary Wept runs through Oct. 5 in Shaefer Theater in the Bryan Center. Tickets are $12 for students.

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