On Stage

The Pig War

Mannequins on the move

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Playwright Steve Lyons understands full well that war is not a laughing matter.

That said, when he set out to write Mrs. Bave Presents the Pig War, he soon realized that the chain of events that nearly led to a violent border dispute—but instead saw diplomacy and peace reign supreme—were inherently laugh-inducing.

“In July of 1859, five British warships were stationed off the coast of San Juan Island and 500 American troops were ready to resist any attempt by the British to take over San Juan Island,” Lyons says. “And it all started because an American farmer shot a British boar. This seems kind of funny to me.”

What also struck Lyons as being worthy of historic hilarity was that, 100 years after the original skirmish, an islander named Emilia Bave presented an original play, The San Juan Saga, to commemorate the centennial of the aptly named Pig War.

Her first theatrical foray used local actors, but when she tried to round up a cast the following year, she couldn’t find any willing participants. Undeterred, she rewrote the play to be a narration and filled in the primary players in the story with mannequins (you’ll see at least one of the originals in the modern-day play). From 1965-85, they helped tell her tale to visitors and tourists—who weren’t typically aware of the weirdness they were in for until they saw Mrs. Bave bustling about onstage while moving the non-human actors.

When Bellingham TheatreWorks debuts Mrs. Bave Presents the Pig War beginning Sept. 8-10 at the Firehouse Performing Arts Center, audiences can expect an intersection of the aforementioned timelines when the stiffer-than-usual characters manipulated by the titular heroine come to life to correct the gaffes in her saga and set the record straight.

“When they realize how horrible the script is, even the mannequins refuse to be in her play unless they can present the true story of the Pig War,” Lyons says. “So Mrs. Bave attempts to direct a play starring these cantankerous, ornery characters.”

One persona that will seem familiar to local audiences is that of U.S. Army Captain George Pickett, who after helping diffuse the border dispute went on to become a major general in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. Due in part to racial tensions throughout the country, his name was recently removed from a local bridge, and he’s been back in the news.

“I think that people are complicated, including George Pickett,” Lyons says, noting that as a playwright it’s often necessary to find the humanity in bad guys as well as good guys.

Ultimately, Bellingham TheatreWorks is committed to telling stories of regional significance, and Mrs. Bave Presents the Pig War fits the bill—complete with mannequins come to life, a script approved by the Bave family, puppets and the original boar Emilia used in her own play.

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