Performed Under the Stars, The Coyote Cycle Holds Audiences Spellbound from Dusk to Dawn

updated 08/24/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/24/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It is twilight on a midsummer's night in the rugged coastal headlands overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Sprawled on bales of hay in an open field, a crowd of 200 latter-day hippies and Sierra Club types breathe in a sweet smell of eucalyptus and anise as the San Francisco skyline lights up the horizon. Suddenly, in a barren spot, the ground appears to be moving of its own accord. There is a terrific clatter, and a man pops up out of the earth in a shabby brown suit, sputtering unintelligible noises and flailing his arms blindly. The Coyote Cycle, an all-night outdoor theatrical pageant, has begun.

Based loosely on American Indian-creation myths, The Coyote Cycle shows off Obie award-winning playwright Murray Mednick's ability to combine camp-fire storytelling, ceremonial rites, vaudeville slapstick and epic drama. Says Scott Rosenberg of the San Francisco Examiner: "It is as if Sam Shepard and Carlos Castaneda took peyote together and realized they'd both been Antonin Artaud in their previous lives." But even those unfamiliar with Artaud, the French dramatic surrealist who died insane in 1948, can appreciate the earthy grandeur of Coyote. "It's a mythic journey during which the characters pop out of the landscape," says Randy Lyman, 27, an author who sat through the 9½-hour marathon three times at $40 a ticket. "You come out feeling you've been a part of the magic of the night."

The Coyote Cycle evolved out of a workshop Mednick conducted at the 1978 Padua Hills, Calif., Playwrights' Festival to help actors "increase their body awareness in outdoor spaces." Creating a new Coyote miniplay for the festival each summer until 1985, Mednick, 47, developed a seven-part cycle, performed by four actors, that begins as night falls with news of an impending apocalypse. Coyote, whom Mednick describes as a "moment-to-moment character who meets his circumstances willy-nilly," sets off on a quest to bring heaven and earth together again. Along the way he is goaded by Spider Woman, a goddess who can lower the skies, and humored by Clown, a mute drug addict; there are also references to wayward TV preachers, covert operators and safe sex. In the end Coyote triumphs over his alter ego, Trickster, and creates a life-giving waterfall on earth at dawn.

Performed in its entirety four nights this summer, Coyote was a survival test for audience members. Most came equipped with sleeping bags, down jackets, picnic baskets and flashlights. Since the seven segments were performed at separate settings in the woods, people kept their blood circulating with gentle hikes in the dark. "This play is not for the faint of heart," joked one straggler as he puffed up a steep incline. And there were occasional mishaps. In one scene Coyote gave birth to 12 spider creatures that were supposed to fly out from a trapdoor over the heads of the audience. One spider baby (actually a plaster puppet) landed on Robert Dufort, 33, who went to a nearby hospital for seven stitches. Undaunted, Dufort returned to finish watching the show.

As the Cycle came to a close, the audience clapped in time to the beating of an Indian drum. "The thing that was really incredible to me," says Spider Woman h. Teirrah McNair, "was that you didn't hear any snoring at the end." Though bleary-eyed, the crowd that had howled like wolves, played musical instruments and stayed awake all night summoned enough energy to let out a war whoop of appreciation. The Cycle was complete.

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