AK: UAA’s Earthquake ’64 brings historic disaster to the stage

(Courtesy of UAA theater department)

Anchorage, Alaska. 1964. Eileen and Greg have been dating for about four years, eight months. During a Scrabble night with their friends, the two get into a fight over why Greg hasn’t proposed yet. After a bitter argument, Eileen leaves.

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The earthquake hasn’t happened yet, but ironically, the disaster will help bring the two of them back together.

Eileen is portrayed by Angela Colavecchio — and is based on the life of Colavecchio’s real grandmother, Jeanne.

“My grandmother has this kind of amazing story that’s almost cinematic, that I’ve heard since I was a kid. She was working downtown on 4th Avenue at a flower shop,” Collavechio said. “And when the earthquake hit, they were at work doing flower arrangements for Easter. And you know, the building basically cracked in two. There’s pictures that we’ve seen where the street is up by the roof.”

Left to right: Actors Devan Hawkins, Jake Beauvais, Angela Colavecchio, Taren Haynes, Kaeli Meno, and Paitton Reid) (Photo by James Evans, UAA)

Jeanne’s story is one of many portrayed in UAA’s Earthquake ’64 — a play that is ambitious to say the least. There are 61 scenes in the production.

The play was written collaboratively by the entire cast and actor Taren Haynes says there were originally even more scenes.

“And in a way it was kind of like throwing things at a wall to see what sticks, and of course it was a lumpy disaster at first because it’s rough,” Haynes said. “It’s a starting place. And then it’s been a process of iteration and reimagination and revision.”

Throughout the two-hour play, the 12-actor ensemble portray many different characters affected by the earthquake — and in between some of the scenes, the actors even portray… themselves.

Actress Devan Hawkins explained her character on stage:

“A tough as nails, Texas-born, mother of three by the name of Genie Chance,” Hawkins said during a rehearsal. “Now Genie had a very special impact on me because she wasn’t looking for me, and I definitely wasn’t looking for her.”

Some scenes even explain the history behind earthquakes.

Actors Becca Padrick (left) and Jake Beauvais. (Photo by James Evans, UAA)

“Why hello everyone,” actress Alexandra McCall said, in character. “I’m the obligatory scientist character, which you can tell from my lab coat and goggles.”

Aside from various character plots — of which there are many — other parts include a physical demonstration of how earthquakes work (with the actors pretending to be tectonic plates) There are several musical numbers about what it’s like to be in a tub during an earthquake. There’s even an interpretive dance number about the dissolution of a marriage following the loss of children in a tsunami. The dance was set to Panic! At The Disco’s 2016 song, “Impossible Year.”

UAA theater professor and play director Brian Cook is aware that the various — and plentiful — scenes aren’t conventional. But he says the jarring nature of the play is intentional.

Actors Joshuah Rutten and Devan Hawkins (Photo by James Evans, UAA)

“And so some of it is that we’re setting things opposite each other,” Cook said. “And hopefully the audience will be comparing and seeing that this event has impacted a whole bunch of people in a lot of different ways.”

And Cook thinks the sheer quantity of scenes will mean that everyone can take something from the play.

“Everybody will find their own connections and their own storylines here,” Cook said. “The things that matter to them is the stuff that they’ll take away from them. And hopefully they won’t worry that they didn’t catch everything. Because I don’t know that you could. I don’t know that I have, and I know the play better than anyone.”

Earthquake ’64 is running at UAA starting tonight until February 18. Among the aforementioned elements, audiences can expect talking dogs, conspiracy theorists and even radio broadcasters.

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Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org.