Novel adaptation touches on gender, spirituality and love

By Jacob Pierce, @JacobPierce1_DE

Adapting a novel into a play brings various headaches. Converting a book of roughly 300 pages of dialogue and history can be a nightmare.

The Marion Kleinau Theater is hosting “The Last Report on Miracles at Little No Horse,” from at 8 p.m. from April 30 to May 2. The show is adapted from a Louise Erdrich novel and directed by Elyse Pineau.

Pineau, a retired associate professor in speech communications, said adaptations are a specialty of hers. While at SIU, she has taught classes on it and most of the shows she has directed were reimagined from original material.

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“To immerse yourself in a novel, either reading or seeing it on stage, is a way to invite people to encounter a world, a culture, a way of being in a very intimate way,” Pineau said.

Choosing “The Last Report on Miracles at Little No Horse” was easy for Pineau. Erdrich is one of her favorite authors and has won various awards including an American Book Award and a National Book Award, she said.

The story connects the life of Agnes Dewitt and her alternate personality Father Damien Modeste. Dewitt has kept this persona for more than 80 years, needing it to serve a Ojibwe community. Pineau said the character is on her deathbed at more than 100 years old, and her life is flashing before her eyes.

“The novel, and all of Erdrich’s novels, are stories that tell the history and challenges of native peoples,” she said.

Andrea Baldwin, a doctoral candidate in communication studies from Avalon, Texas, co-directs the show and said her job was making scenes come to life with setting and stage direction. This particular job was a challenge, as the play takes a minimalistic approach.

Baldwin said the play spends a lot of time jumping from place to place, with a lot of the locations being immersive and quite different from each other.

The production has to portray a bank robbery and murder and this all has to be done without big costume changes or time to rearrange the set, she said.

“We use those props in multiple ways,” Baldwin said. “For example, the ladder can be a barn, the ladder can be a piano and the ladder can be a tombstone.“

Caryle Schweska, a graduate student in performance studies from Sterling, is one of two performers who plays the bifurcated main character of Dewitt and Modeste. She portrays the priest side of the character.

This type of performance adds depth to the entire show. It puts a secondary level to both sides of the character, she said. The duality of the role had to be worked on with both actors.

“This role lets us be both tough and afraid at the same time, and for the audience to visually see that,” Schweska said.

Ashley Beard, a doctoral candidate in communication studies from Los Angeles, said the partnering performance was accomplished through various exercises used to connect with each other.

While many involved with the play were told not to read the book beforehand, a few read it in one of Pineau’s classes. Beard fell in love with the character while reading the book, she said.

She empathized with the character, having a religious background of her own. Beard was also denied the right to be a pastor because of her gender. A lot of religions have a patriarchy system built around them, she said.

The show will be $5 to students and $7 to the public.

Jacob Pierce can be reached at [email protected] 

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