The Fire in the Wood

By Philip Pearce

LEGENDARY BIG SUR sculptor Edmund Kara lived a Cinderella rags to riches life but he did it in reverse. As a boy wonder New York fashion designer he was already creating clothes for the likes of Lena Horne and Peggy Lee when he was barely out of his teens. He moved west into his own Los Angeles fashion label and the wardrobe departments of Paramount and Universal.  Then, at 37, still on a big roll as a fashion designer, Kara packed up his drawing boards and his glittering rag trade reputation and left Hollywood. He built himself a studio hermitage on the Big Sur coast, where he spent the next forty or so years in solitude, producing dramatic sculpture pieces like the wooden Phoenix on the deck at Nepenthe.

Welsh poet Peter Thabit Jones has written a stage tribute to the redoubtable Kara called The Fire in the Wood. Unicorn Theatre is offering a six-performance run that ends this weekend, surrounded by a Kara retrospective at the Carl Cherry Center in Carmel. It’s less a play than a dramatized recitation of poems celebrating Kara’s lifestyle, artistic philosophy and relationship with wood as a medium.  

Skip Kadish plays Kara’s grizzled ghost, looking back across a working life that was as intense as it was doggedly opposed to contact with establishment art, fine or commercial. Robert Blaine Yeats plays his younger working self; Bob Colter, Kathleen Baer, Flora Anderson and Vivian Danzer are on hand as people who managed to break through his wall of isolation or poetic commentators on his individualist approach to sculpting. There are sequences of costumed mime and modern dance, notably Danzer’s recurring appearances as a sequined Phoenix.

Jones’ poetry seemed to me to be best when it dealt with the sculptor’s Big Sur work space and surroundings (“Fog”). The theme of his obsession with solitude kept returning, but not so much in fresh explorations of a distinctive work ethic as in repeats of what had already been said couched in different words.  

They were words which, like any good dialogue, needed to sound as effortless and spontaneous as breathing—and that’s a major challenge for any group of amateur actors, even a group as seasoned as these. The cast struggled, but the sparks and the fire were largely missing.

As of last weekend, The Fire and the Wood was more of a provocative work in progress than a finished piece of theater.