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Exploring the Wonder in “Humboldt Unbound”

Date: November 21, 2013

Who in the world was Alexander von Humboldt? During Humboldt State University’s centennial year, this original play about the school’s namesake attempts to capture the spirit of his life as visionary explorer, scientist, godfather of ecology and champion of diversity and freedom.


After more than a year of research and creative contributions, HSU students and faculty in several disciplines have produced a fast and fluid series of transformations creating a dynamic portrait in live theatre, music, dance and spectacle. This original and collaborative HSU production, directed by Dell’Arte’s Michael Fields (‘92, Theatre Arts MFA) with music by Tim Gray, opens for two weekends at the Van Duzer Theatre on Thursday, November 7.
Alexander von Humboldt was one of the 19th century’s most famous figures but is almost unknown today, especially in the U.S. During Humboldt State University’s centennial year, this play about the school’s namesake attempts to capture the spirit of his life as visionary explorer, scientist, godfather of ecology and champion of diversity and freedom.
Humboldt Unbound explores the wonder and perils of his South American excursions, including his efforts on behalf of Indigenous peoples, as well as facets of his important public and personal relationships. But it isn’t a standard biography.
This isn’t an historical pageant,” director Michael Fields said. “Humboldt believed in intuition and emotion and not just scientific rationalism. We want to reflect that on stage.”
Together with Tim Gray’s songs, film and projections, the colorful visual imagery and constantly reassembled set designed by Giulio Cesare Perrone, lighting by Michael Foster and costumes by HSU’s Catherine Brown, the cast enacts connections that transcend a year-by-year narrative.
The project began with Francisco de la Cabada of the HSU World Languages and Culture department, who envisioned a play about Humboldt that began with him addressing an HSU audience during the centennial—which is exactly how Humboldt Unbound begins.
He described his ideas to Margaret Kelso, chair of Theatre, Film & Dance. “As he talked, my imagination just went wild,” she said. “I saw how this could be exploded into something amazing.”
She asked Dell’Arte producing director Michael Fields to become involved, and together with de la Cabada and his colleague (and von Humboldt expert) Lilianet Brintrup, they designed a process that involved courses and informal groups over several semesters before the collaboration continued with the current cast and creative team.
Even before its premier at HSU, Humboldt Unbound has been invited to perform for an international Alexander von Humboldt conference in Santiago, Chile in January.
HSU student Mark Teeter plays Humboldt as the young explorer, while HSU Geography professor Stephen Cunha portrays Humboldt in his later years. Luke Tooker plays Johann Siefert, Humboldt’s last companion who serves as the audience’s guide in this play. The rest of the cast performs multiple roles—not all of them human. The characters include mosquitoes, frogs, meteors and a parrot that is the last speaker of a tribal language.
The ensemble cast includes Giovanni Alva, Ina Loaiza, Samantha Herbert, Kate Haley, Charlie Heinberg, Johani Guerrero, Gaelen Poultan, Chris Joe and Rilo Wage.
Humboldt Unbound is performed in the Van Duzer Theatre at HSU Thursdays through Saturdays, November 7-9 and 14-16 at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday Nov. 17. Tickets are $10/$8 students and seniors with a limited number of free tickets to HSU students, available from the HSU Box Office (826-3928). For more information, vist HSUstage.blogspot.com.

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