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Photograph by BJ Murphy
SWAMPED: Conjurer Violet Ash, hound dog Ambera DeLash and Wiley (Camila Frausto) star in Renegade Theatre's 'Wiley and the Hairy Man.'

Wild About 'Hairy'

Renegade Theatre Experiment brings a Southern myth alive onstage

By Marianne Messina

IN SUZAN ZEDER'S play Wiley and the Hairy Man, young Wiley (Camila Frausto) is plagued by dreams of the Hairy Man—"He done got your pappy, and he's gonna get you!" Wiley learns that to rid himself of the Hairy Man, a swamp thing lurking the Tombigbee Swamp of the American southeast, he must meet the creature face-to-face and outwit him three times. In this Renegade Theatre Experiment production, director Barbara Murray, who has worked with the Children's Theatre Program for many years, shows her affinity for kids by tickling all the senses.

Added to visual and conceptual invention, there's a buffet of sound. A three-person chorus (Stephen Evans, Daniel Norberg, Lucita Sinohui) opens the show with swamp sounds, a multipart chorale of hisses, howls, clacks and hums, a la Broadway musical Cats. The enchanting soundscape helps tell the story, welling up for a conjurer's showdown or whispering fearful anticipation (like internal voices) when the Hairy Man is about to appear. When Mammy (Violet Ash), "the best conjurer in the county," gets her cauldron boiling, we see a member of the chorus under the pot, vocalizing the bubble and gurgle as s/he undulates flame-colored silk scarves. I won't give away all of Renegade's innovative touches to Zeder's rhymed script (the rhymes are handled subtly enough to catch you by surprise).

Frausto's lovable Wiley stems from the Huck Finn tradition down to the coveralls and Huck's youthful bluster; Twain might have called it common sense. Here, Wiley's emotional fortitude shakes off some the Hairy Man's scariness, which, like Renegade kiddie villains of the past, tends more toward Witchiepoo than Wicked Witch of the West. Still, a toddler at this performance gave evidence that for those under 4 it might be fright at first sight of the Hairy Man. Sean C. Murphy's Hairy Man is magnificently hideous to look at with his wild, long, jagged and matted black hair, hairy clumps hanging from his coveralls and Gothic high cheekbones. Murphy gives us one of those "regular guy" villains with the twisted potential that comes and goes in a flash. His creepy call, "Wiley ... Wiley," is memorable and chilling.

Consistent with Renegade resourcefulness, this Hairy Man is all over the building. He sneaks in from right aisle or charges through left door; he materializes in the pit, menacing the pit audience with 360 degrees of action as he attempts to curse the dog (Ambera DeLash) or sneak up on Wiley to a chorus of "mighty scary sounds when the Hairy Man's around." DeLash plays a perfectly recognizable dog as Wiley's hound ("The Hairy Man can't stand no dogs")—for example, a belly scratch in the right place sets other dog parts in motion.

Robert Campbell's eye-catching set goes unchanged in the straight-through performance. But the staging and lighting (Shannyn Crawford) help distinguish Mammy's ramshackle cabin from the swamp, the "safety zone" vs. "out there." The two must merge to force Wiley's lesson—that a lot of scariness is rooted in self-doubt. This production had kids enthralled. Sure, for hardened adults there are better vehicles for the themes, but maybe not with this kind of gleeful surprise that makes you smile all the way through.

WILEY AND THE HAIRY MAN, a Renegade Theatre Experiment production, plays Saturday at 2 and 5pm and Sunday at 2pm through Dec. 2 at the Historic Hoover Theater, 1635 Park Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $10–$18. (408.351.4440)

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