Sea gypsies re-berth in home port

'Nomadic Tempest,' a Cirque with a message, brings Caravaners back to B.C. after 30+ years

Captain and mate aboard Amara Zee; 'World Flag' flapping in False Creek breeze. Photo: Lincoln Kaye

By night, just East of the Cambie Bridge, the 120 tonne “tall ship” Amara Zee lights up for the Caravan Stage Company’s operatic “climatopian spectacle” Nomadic Tempest, set in the tsunami-ravaged, extinction-riddled, refugee-riven future world of 2040.

Video projections and swivelling spotlights scintillate across the vessel’s gauzy sails. Aerialists dressed up as endangered butterflies dangle from the spars. Villainous cyborg oil barons cackle atop the masts, 30 metres above the deck. A doom-saying Sybil croons her way along a zip-line from ship to shore, landing right in the middle of the audience.

The syntactically rather impressionistic libretto is sung in five languages – Coast Salish Halkomelem, Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin and English – with an accompanying score (by James Coomber) of scuffy atonality, like a Kurt Weil Sprechstimme.

Impressive multi-media storytelling, and unimpeachably right-minded advocacy. But even more dramatic is the back-story of the production.

By day, the scene aboard the Amara Zee is more languid. Young techs and performers flirt and sunbathe topside, or snooze on the wraparound divan in the ship’s snug dining salon.  In fact, paradoxically, the liveliest diurnal Caravaners seem to be the troupe’s septuagenarian founders and co-directors, Adriana “Nans” Kelder and Paul Kirby.

Kirby’s just a couple of years out from open-heart surgery, yet there’s still a spring in his step – literally, thanks to the conical steel coils embedded in the heels of his bluchers, which lend a permanent “sea-leg” swagger to his gait. But he leaves it to Kelder to guide us from the terra firma of False Creek down a ladder, up a gangway and through a couple of hatches for a look below decks.

She shows off the chart-room computer, its display currently reprogrammed for son et lumière performance mode, rather than navigation. She pats a stout bulkhead where solid steel tubing undergirds the Amara Zee’s wooden shell – a full-scale replica of a 19th century, ketch-rigged, shallow-draught Thames sailing barge.

We glimpse the narrow, bunk-bedded cabins that house the 20-member troupe – a rotating crew that equitably shares all nautical and theatrical duties, as well as such subsistence wages as the non-profit company can manage to generate. The Caravan commune has gone through dozens of permutations in the 20 years since the ship first launched.

British Columbia has loomed large in the troupe’s history. The founding couple first met in Montreal in the 1960’s. As editor of a counter-culture newspaper, Kirby was hit with vindictive lawsuits including (among others) an obscenity rap for running a nude picture of a psychedelically body-painted Kelder on Page One.

In an ironic reversal of then-prevailing political refugee flows, the pair fled to – of all places – the U.S., where they switched their agitprop activities from journalism to guerrilla theatre. By 1970, with charges against them dropped, they were able to return to Canada. But, giving Montreal a wide berth, they opted for Sooke, B.C.

There they launched Caravan as an itinerant horse-drawn puppet theatre. It grew to a seven-wagon cavalcade over the next decade-and-a-half touring throughout the province and the Western U.S.   

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