- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001

The archetype of the Coyote, or trickster, can be found in folklore in every culture, from American Indian to Norse, African, Japanese and Roman.

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The trickster brings knowledge through the back door, so to speak. He learns, and teaches others, not just by supernatural acts, but through goof-ups and irrefutably human behavior.

Because he is a supernatural creature with so many human qualities, Coyote is a beloved and popular myth. He can steal the water from the Frog People so as to evenly distribute it into lakes and streams all over the land. He can raise the dead, and his medicine is enormously powerful.

As Molly Smith's sprightly and uneven production at Arena Stage shows, Coyote also falls victim to intestinal troubles and a sexual appetite that is positively Clintonian.

The two sides of Coyote's nature are explored in an evening that incorporates Barry Lopez's tales, beat-intensive music by John Luther Adams and some marvelously playful choreography by Septime Webre that is expressively and springily danced by Yvonne Cutaran and Jason Hartley of the Washington Ballet.

The basis of "Coyote Builds North America" is simple. A storyteller (the beguiling Tantoo Cardinal) relates with wonderful directness nine fables about Coyote's efforts and schemes. The stories are embellished by Miss Cutaran and Mr. Hartley's dances, which are impish and mischievous. Many times, the dancers wear huge red-and-white tribal masks, which obscure their features but not the light friskiness of their footwork.

Behind the dancers and Miss Cardinal are six musicians — W. Scott Deal, Bohdan Hilash, Daniel Hudson, John Kennedy, David Pleasant and Min Tze Wu — at first clad in traditional European tuxedos and white ties. Because the orchestra is playing a wide variety of percussion instruments, we sense that before long, the musicians will be stripping away their white-European guise and letting their hair down, so to speak. They do that, first going barefoot before flinging off their formal wear to reveal primitive-patterned bodysuits similar to those worn by the dancers.

The music, a throbbing mix of drums, violin and ambient sound effects, reflects the multiethnic and time- and space-crossing vibe of the production. At times, the musicians emerge from the back of the stage to participate in the show. They boogie with their instruments in one part and hoot and howl at the end, which is supposed to signal abandonment to one's coyote nature but instead is rather embarrassing.

"Coyote Builds North America" contains a lot of embellishment, and one wonders why tales of such plain strength need so many accessories. The show is at its best when we listen to Miss Cardinal or watch the dancers bring to life the extremes in Coyote's personality: miracle worker and bungler.

The mingling of high emotion and low comedy is not as satisfying. The tale of Coyote bringing a girl back to life and then teaching the humans a harsh lesson — that ultimately death has no cure — has a hushed lyricism. Coyote's encounter with the Whirlwind Woman, who literally blows him off, is engaging and hypnotic. But these pieces are juxtaposed with skits about Coyote's flatulence and bowel problems, followed by a piece in which Mr. Hartley sports an enormous fake phallus. This is like watching excerpts from "Giselle" followed by "The Benny Hill Show."

In the beginning, the show seems to be a great one for children — a music and dance-filled introduction to archetype and myth. Even the digestive-upsets sequences may not seem much worse than what we see on TV. But the phallus scene leaves one thinking that maybe the youngsters should read a book instead. Perhaps the dichotomy in Coyote's nature could have been expressed in a more measured, less burlesque way, than in this ultimately slight production.{*}{*}WHAT: "Coyote Builds North America"WHERE: The Kreeger at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SWWHEN: 7:30 Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday evenings; 8 Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings; and 2:30 p.m. selected Saturdays and 2 p.m. selected Sundays, through April 15TICKETS: $27 to $45PHONE: 202/488-3300

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