July 11, 2012

Fred and Mary: An Unconventional Romance

Arizona writer's 'Fred and Mary' re-creates architectural history

By Kerry LengelIn the John Wayne view of history, the West was won by steely-eyed heroes who faced down outlaws and "Injuns" and made the frontier safe for civilization.

A rather different vision is expounded in "Fred and Mary: An Unconventional Romance," a new historical drama by Arizona playwright Micki Shelton. It premiered Saturday, July 7, at the newly renovated Elks Opera House in Prescott.

A character study bordering on hagiography, "Fred and Mary" is about Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, who spent the first half of the 20th century working as an architect and designer for the Harvey Company, which brought fine dining to the Wild West at its famed Harvey Houses. A notorious perfectionist, Colter followed a philosophy of "invented authenticity" in her Southwestern designs for landmark buildings such as La Posada Hotel in Winslow and a series of tourist stops on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, including the Hopi House and the Desert View Watchtower, a 70-foot faux ruin with a hidden steel framework.

In all her work, she aimed to honor the culture and the artistry of the Southwest's Native tribes. It was a passion she shared with company founder Fred Harvey, who died in 1901, the same year Colter got her first design commission from his heirs. History says the two never met, but in this play they do, because, as narrator "Old Mary" (Gail Mangham) puts it, "I've always invented histories for my buildings, so why not tell my story however I want?"
But the play didn't blow away this reviewer:While "Fred and Mary" offers a fascinating history lesson, it doesn't offer much in the way of dramatic conflict. As the man with the purse strings, J.F. is no match for Mary's prickly determination, and far too affectionate of her to serve as a proper antagonist anyway. We do hear a fair amount about Colter's struggle for recognition, both for herself and for the Native artists she championed, but her only real enemies, sexism and racism, remain offstage abstractions.

Onstage, the only character who is Mary's equal in talent and ambition is the imaginary Fred (Jonathan Perpich), but rather than challenging her in any way, and despite the "romance" promised in the title, he is more of a kindly father figure.
Apparently the play also includes a prominent Hopi character:

Fred and Mary: An Unconventional Romance opens this weekend

Play focusing on architect Mary Colter and artist Fred Kabotie runs July 6-8 and 13-15 at the historic Elks Opera House in Prescott

By David Yankus
Straddling the border between historical and alternate realities, their story is interwoven with the beauty and culture of the indigenous people of the Southwest. Among the most vibrant examples of their vision are those at the Grand Canyon--buildings such as the Hopi House, the Watchtower, Hermit's Rest, and the Lookout Studio; which will be shown on stage through projection and lighting effects.

Hopi artist and painter Filmer Kewanyama steps into acting for the first time to play Fred Kabotie, a Native artist who worked with Mary Colter on the Watchtower. Working with Kabotie and other Native artists, Colter recognized the Southwest's first people by introducing indigenous themes in her designs. Visitors to the Watchtower today continue to be awed by Kabotie's extensive wall paintings and remarkable sand painting, which dominates the central floor.

After arriving in Prescott, playwright Micki Shelton found Kewanyama through his art two years ago and upon meeting with him discovered that as a young child he actually knew Kabotie.

"Fred Kabotie is from the same village that I'm from, Shungopavi on Second Mesa," said Kewanyama. "My dad was a silversmith and an artist, and Fred Kabotie used to manage the Hopi Cooperative Guild on Second Mesa. Sometimes my father would bring me with him to help polish the silver, and that's how I would be able to see my father working and watch Fred Kabotie managing the gallery."
Comment:  The second article mentions Fred Harvey only once and devotes the rest of its space to Fred Kabotie. This is a bit confusing. It makes one think the play is about Colter and Kabotie, not Colter and Harvey.

For more on Native theater, see Native Performers in Cirque du Soleil and Farmer's Of Mice and Men Reviewed.

Below:  "Cecily Overman (portraying Mary Colter) and Filmer Kewanyama (portraying Fred Kabotie) rehearse for the play."

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