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Mountain Man: James Dunn prepares for his 21st Mountain Play.

Play's the Thing

To director James Dunn, theater is forever

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James Dunn, the Marin County director, teacher and actor whose storied reputation now borders on the legendary, believes in the power of theater the way that some people believe in love or goodness or democracy. If the world ended tomorrow, if society devolved into a Mad Max apocalypse of epic proportions, Dunn is certain that, though all other shreds of civilization might vanish in flames and dust, people will find a way to continue staging important theatrical productions. The evidence, Dunn suggests, is all around us.

Literally.

We're about to have lunch in Mill Valley, in the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais, where the famous Mountain Play has been staged every spring for 91 years. The first Mountain Play took place in 1913, and though there was a short break during WWII, it still stands as one of the most enduring and beloved theatrical events in Bay Area history, each year attracting thousands to the spectacular Cushing Memorial Amphitheater. This year, under Dunn's direction--his 21st mountain play in a row--throngs of sunblock-scented folks will gather to witness a massive staging of My Fair Lady, the enduringly popular Lerner and Lowe musical about misogyny and speech therapy in Victorian England.

"Did you read about what happened in Sarajevo?" Dunn asks, still thinking about the powerful attraction of theater. "It was several years ago," he says, "when they were having all the trouble in the Balkans, in Kosovo and Sarajevo, when the Serbs were fighting the Croatians. Sarajevo, you know, had once been a very beautiful city, but it had been reduced to rubble. In spite of that, they were doing theater in the basements of burned-out buildings. They did Waiting for Godot. I read an article about it and it tore my heart out. They had no lighting. People would come in with candles at night to watch a play in the basement of a blown-up building.

"That," he says with a grin, "is appreciating the power of theater."

It's going to be a busy summer for Dunn. Once the six-show run of Lady is over, Dunn--who taught for decades at the College of Marin--will be restaging his signature piece, a spaghetti-Western version of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, first performed at the College of Marin in 1970, in an award-winning production that featured a young Robin Williams.

"A bunch of my students wanted to do something in our small studio theater," he recalls. "A lot of us had grown up nuts about old Westerns, and I found that you could take every character in Taming of the Shrew and put a Western movie stereotype on them--and it works! Petruchio becomes the Clint Eastwood character with a serape and a cigar, Kate becomes a Calamity Jane type and her father is the town marshal and saloonkeeper."

After that first staging of the show in 1970, Dunn and company were invited to perform the piece at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. "The Brits went nuts for it," says Dunn. Since then, he's been invited to stage similar Western versions of Shrew at theaters all over the country, including a run at the Old Globe in San Diego.

The piece has evolved a bit, of course. According to Dunn--who insists this will be the last time he stages the Western version--he's now added a major, no-holds-barred bar brawl. "It's a lot of fun," he says, laughing. "That play says something about human nature, and My Fair Lady says something about human nature. And then you get to laugh. All of that is important."

Though unable to name the exact characteristics of theater that make it so compelling, both to him and to the thousands of people who've attended his shows over the years, Dunn is certain of one thing.

"Theater," he says, "is important. If society ever did fall apart like in the Mad Max movies," he says, "I definitely believe people would still get together to do Our Town and Fiddler on the Roof and My Fair Lady and Taming of the Shrew. Theater gives our lives meaning. It always has and it always will."


The Mountain Play production of 'My Fair Lady' runs May 23-June 16, Sundays at 1pm. Special Saturday performance on June 15. $20-$28. Call 415.383.1100 for tickets and information on free shuttle service to the amphitheater. 'Taming of the Shrew' plays as part of the Marin Shakespeare Festival, Aug. 27-Sept. 25, at the Forest Meadows Amphitheater at Dominican College, 50 Acacia Ave., San Rafael. 415.499.4488.

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From the May 26-June 1, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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