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‘Arctic Requiem’ a touching tale of a fight for clean water

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From left, Gendell Hernandez, Cathleen Riddley, Michael Torres, Lynne Soffer and Lawrence Radecker appear in the evocative “Arctic Requiem.” (Courtesy Vicki Victoria)

“Arctic Requiem,” an intimate world premiere based on true events, is educational, evocative, and, perhaps most important, entertaining.

Subtitled “The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina,” the production is a touching, fictionalized account of the relationship between Inupiaq people, natives of a remote village in the Arctic, and an extraordinary San Francisco attorney who championed their cause: to stop a zinc mine from polluting their world.

Created by BootStrap Theater Foundation, which presents new ensemble works with music and dance told from a feminist perspective, “Arctic Requiem” covers familiar ground, from the way native cultures are inextricably connected to the earth to evil corporations abusing humans in the name of profit. Yet the themes are approached with humor, ingenuity and sensitivity in Sharmon Hilfinger’s nuanced script and Joan McMillen’s haunting music.

Director Tracy Ward leads the talented cast. Cathleen Riddley, Michael Torres, Lynne Soffer and Lawrence Radecker play Kivalina residents (each nicely has an individual personality) who dare to challenge the company that owns the Red Dog Mine. Operations there have poisoned the water supply, and the fish, which “have sores,” are inedible.

Damon K. Sperber is a delight as Luke, the quirky, zealous environmental justice lawyer (and birdwatcher) who continues to surprise the Eskimos with his perseverance, openness and humanity. (Cole, who started the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment in San Francisco in 1989 and was at the forefront of groundbreaking climate-change-related legal battles, died in an auto accident in 2009).

The lively Gendell Hernandez rounds out the cast as Raven, the large mythical bird that created the Inupiaq culture, whose movement serves as a guidepost of sorts as the tale unfolds.

Riddley, as Colleen, the villager who first meets Luke at an environmental conference (and initially is skeptical of his idea to sue the mine for violating the Clean Water Act) beautifully sings most of the show’s mournful laments; composer McMillen on piano and Helen Newby on cello provide the perfectly complementary accompaniment.

With its meticulous blending and balancing of imaginative, fairy tale-like elements; cold hard facts (detailed information about regulations and lawsuits is presented clearly); well-rounded characters played by committed, skilled actors; spare yet clever production values and costumes; and a set design suggesting the natural landscape (with real, tinkling water in the background), “Arctic Requiem” is rare indeed, a show that equally satisfies the heart, soul and mind.

REVIEW
Arctic Requiem: The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina
Presented by BootStrap Theater Foundation
Where: Z Below, 450 Florida St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 15
Tickets: $30 to $45
Contact: (866) 811-4111, www.zspace.org

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