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[whitespace] Tanya Shaffer Survival Instinct: Playwright and performer Tanya Shaffer goes to Timbuktu to live through a romantic breakup in 'Let My Enemy Live Long!,' the hit opening production of the Z Festival of New Performance.

Uncommon Enemy

Tanya Shaffer tells of a missionary trek to Ghana where she ends up saving herself

By Mary Spicuzza

PLENTY OF PEOPLE profess a habit of running from their problems. But nobody does it as well and chronicles it as beautifully as San Francisco-based writer and performer Tanya Shaffer. With her powerful monologue, Let My Enemy Live Long! Shaffer takes the audience on an incredible journey of the human spirit as she recounts her riverboat trip to Timbuktu, Mali.

Enemy, the opening play of this year's Z Festival of New Performance, which continues through mid-November at the Actors' Theatre, begins with the beats of a djembe and a wide-eyed Shaffer, who through facial expressions alone captures the well-meaning white girl arriving in Africa to "make a difference." As drummer Baba Duru Demetrius finishes his introductory jam, Shaffer in a compelling and honest voice instantly begins to break down romanticized notions of missionary work in Africa. Though officially on a mission to build houses in rural Ghana, Shaffer openly admits she was using the trip to deal with a breakup and ensuing hard times.

"I did what I always do--fled the country," she shrugs, quickly adding, "I figure, it's my life and I can run from it if I want to."

Shaffer balances her reflective one-liners with sensitive portrayals of those met during her bumpy voyage along the Niger River. Never straying into gratuitous self-obsessing or sweeping anthropological assumptions, Shaffer fully acknowledges her privilege as a white woman in Africa as she describes her surroundings and fellow travelers. The result is a well-navigated, sharp and soulful exploration of racism, survival instincts and human compassion.

Words aside, Shaffer wins over even the mime-wary with her ability to create moving characters without even a sentence. Whether portraying a mute man who glows with kindness, a loud-mouthed but protective hustler, a mostly pious priest or an African-American expatriate, she creates characters full of depth and personality. With the help of director Amy Mueller and Joan Holden of the Mime Troupe, Shaffer shares powerful memories including an underwater brush with death.

The impressive performance by both the actress and her percussionist, which at times feels like a dialogue between the two, hints that the Z Festival has more surprise gems in store. And Shaffer, a young playwright who also contributes her travel stories to the online magazine Salon, is truly a powerhouse. There seems to be a cult of escapists who have attempted the trip to Timbuktu (my voyage was cut short by a bad bout with typhoid in Burkina Faso), but Shaffer actually made it. Thankfully, she lived to write about it.

Let My Enemy Live Long! plays at 8pm Thursday through Saturday and at 2 and 7pm Sunday at the Actors' Theatre, 1001 Center St, Santa Cruz. The Z Festival of New Performance continues through Nov. 21 with three additional plays. Tickets are "pay what you can" Thursdays, $12-$15 for all other shows. (877.77Z.SHOW)

Requiem Mass

IT'S HARD to toss a hacky-sack and not hit someone whining about the lack of things to do in Santa Cruz. But for all the unsatisfied souls, there also seems to be a shortage of folks actually willing to get off their couches and support local events. The Monterey Bay Repertory Theatre's new production, Mass Appeal, Bill C. Davis' gripping drama about a Catholic priest and a young seminarian, is the latest casualty in the ongoing battle to gain support for artists in Santa Cruz. After only five shows, the troupe decided to cancel the show just minutes before its Sunday afternoon performance.

"Mass Appeal has closed suddenly due to situations out of the control of the production staff," Dustin Leonard, executive producing director, wrote in a somber faxed press release, following up a somber Brian Spencer's sad explanation that things have turned uncertain for the talented troupe.

"I guess that's show business," he said.

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From the October 20-27, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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