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Compelling Native American storytelling

Published on: March 22, 2008

Hang out in the world of children’s theater long enough, and you'll eventually come across a Coyote tale. Coyote, the anti-hero of Native American storytelling, can be enormously appealing to children, especially when he stars in just-so stories. He’s a trickster and a taunter, a shape-shifter, greedy and gullible, subject to heartache and longing, an accidental leader – a complex, funny and sometimes moving character with a streak of child-likeness that kids relate to.

According to Coyote
, written by actor John Kauffman and performed by the multitalented Gene Tagaban, is at Seattle Children’s Theatre through May 11. It’s as good an introduction to the Coyote stories as you’ll see anywhere.
Tagaban, dressed in jeans and using simple props, is compelling onstage – he evokes diverse characters with powerful, economical movements and facial expressions (and, once, his long ponytail). 

The tales illustrate a life lesson or explain a natural phenomenon. In one of the most affecting stories, Coyote longs for his dead wife, and is given a chance by the Death Spirit to bring her back to life. He follows the spirit's directions to the letter, and his wife is allowed to follow  him away from the Death Lodge -- but Coyote can’t check his impulse to touch her prematurely, and she fades away forever. In another beautiful tale, Coyote falls in love with a star and dances with her and her people in the sky, only to fall to back to earth and create Crater Lake.

After the show, Tagaban comes out to answer audience questions. Stick around for that. At the performance I attended, a number of audience members left right before he got started, and they missed out on a chance to interact with an engaging master storyteller.

The show is recommended for kids ages 6 and older, but I sat next to a preschooler who was riveted by the production and called it “funny, yeah.” It’s an hour long and moves quickly; the action is by turns amusing and thought-provoking; and I was as thoroughly absorbed by Tagaban’s performance as any of the kids in the audience. 

If you go

According to Coyote
is at Seattle Children’s Theatre through May 11: Fridays 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays 2 p.m., 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $17-$33. Purchase by visiting SCT's Web site.

More on Gene Tagaban.

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