Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Dust Bowl: Oklahoma!

 Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno in Oklahoma!. (Photo: Teddy Wolff)

Daniel Fish’s new, stripped-down production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, which has moved from St. Ann’s Warehouse to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, is being hailed as brilliant and revolutionary, much like the original 1943 version, even though that didn’t do anything that the 1927 Kern and Hammerstein Show Boat (or for that matter, the 1940 Rodgers and Hart Pal Joey), hadn’t done before and better.

Revolutionary? Let’s start at the end: in this Oklahoma!, after the cast has sung the title song, our heroes, the bronco-buster Curly (played by Damon Daunno, so slight he looks like he’d split in two if he ever sat astride a horse) and Laurey (a very angry Rebecca Naomi Jones) are dressed in white for their wedding, when Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) crashes in and offers Curly a gift, conditional upon his getting to kiss the bride. Jud and Laurey French-kiss, despite Jud's having previously tried to rape her and threatened her and her family. Curly opens the gift, and it’s a gun (not the booby-trapped “Little Wonder” traditional to stodgy stagings of yore). Jud then stands about ten feet in front of Curley and spreads his arms. Curly shoots him. Curly’s gun is rigged so that Curly (yes, Curly) is spattered with copious amounts of blood, his face crimson and dripping, his white (modern-dress) cowboy suit now mostly red, with a significant portion of blood spattering his bride. Jud is still standing. The rest of the eleven-person cast, who have been sitting around in chairs watching this, intone the next four or five minutes of dialogue with no affect. “Is he dead? He looks dead.” (Uh, he’s still standing, so no, he isn’t dead.) After too much of this, Judd goes upstage and lies down on the floor. Aunt Eller (the redoubtable Mary Testa) then bullies the local marshal and judge into a kangaroo-court trial that finds Curly innocent by reason of self-defense; the ensemble reprises the title tune; and as they sing of the grandness of the land they belong to and the new union they hope to join, Laurey sobs in sorrow, others writhe in misery, some stomp in anger, and Curly plays the guitar in his blood-stained clothes. All is corrupt, all is unclean, all is rot.

Wait, what?

Yup, this bad grad-school experiment which never should have seen the light of day outside a college campus (unsurprisingly, it originated at Bard) is now on Broadway, enjoying rave reviews from The New York Times and others, and a whole passel of Tony nominations.

I’ve never been a fan of Oklahoma! – its queasy mixture of mush, malice, and weird sexual politics has always been problematic, despite its stature as a towering exemplar of the American musical. The syrupy, cornball score smooths over the rough parts of the plot, convincing the audience they’ve had a good time despite the mayhem. But I wouldn’t wish the Daniel Fish treatment on any musical. As director, he scrapes off the mush by amping up the malice and doing his best to remove any trace of pretty from the score.

This production is, of course, “immersive” (sigh), which means some of the audience sit on the stage. They sit at tables of unfinished pine plywood, on a floor of unfinished pine plywood, in seats of unfinished pine. Even the floors of the raked seats that surround the thrust stage have been re-floored in unfinished pine plywood. The walls wear siding of, yes, unfinished pine plywood. Pre-show, the lighting is hyper-bright, so that you can see all of this unfinished pine plywood. The lighting remains unchanged for about the first 30 minutes of the show, when you get a 30-second respite, so you damn well better like looking at unfinished pine plywood. Also on the walls surrounding the audience are gun racks, about 20 or so, each bearing about a dozen rifles. It’s symbolic, because, America, you see, likes its guns. And its unfinished pine plywood, apparently.

Ali Stroker in Oklahoma!. (Photo: Teddy Wolff)

The cast enters en masse to begin the show, in modern dress: jeans or jean cut-offs, a few cowboy hats and boots, some cropped t-shirts. (Costumer Terese Wadden has a pretty easy time of it.) Jud is the only one not wearing recognizably Western gear, with Vaill dressed like a cross between Kurt Cobain and a school shooter. Curly’s wearing chaps for some reason, and he picks up a guitar and starts yodeling “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” in a country-punk twang, wiggling his hips sort of like Elvis. (Sort of.)

The play proceeds with lots of post-modern “ideas.” When Curly first visits Jud in his lair, the bright lights go pitch black, and Jud and Curly converse softly into microphones, their amplified voices the only sensory input allowed the audience. That is, until Will Parker (James Davis) enters with a video camera and films Jud’s face in close-up which is projected 30 feet high on the back wall. Parker, who’s otherwise unfathomably dumb (that’s Hammerstein’s fault), has apparently taken a couple of film studies courses, so he knows when to go to a two-shot, with Curly and Jud’s noses less than an inch from each other. (If the two were to go ahead and kiss, it would make as much sense as anything else Fish has tossed in.)

The nine-piece band plays Daniel Kluger’s new alt-country orchestrations well, but those pretty melodies of Rodgers don’t always lend themselves to such treatment. Jones shouts all her numbers (she’s angry, remember – maybe not the best choice for Fish to impose on his African-American actress, since it comes dangerously close to stereotype), and Duanno’s country ornamentations quickly grow old. Mary Testa is a formidable talent, but in Fish’s vision, the only humor Aunt Eller is allowed is sarcasm. When she sings a small bit of “Out of My Dreams,” it’s an ugly yell. Dreams are shams, you see. The only actor who seems to be having a good time is Ali Stroker who, using a wheelchair for mobility, embraces Ado Annie’s innocent lustiness. (Stroker was previously in Deaf West Theatre’s Spring Awakening.) Davis’s Will also elicits laughs, mostly because of the character’s idiocy. Will Brill’s Ali Hakim spends most of the play looking like he can’t believe he’s stuck with these dolts, but Hammerstein punishes him for it, and Fish has him twisting in anguish at play’s end. (I know how he feels.)

The original show was famous for Agnes DeMille’s choreography. This go-round has, with one exception, almost no dance at all. The actors move only as themselves, so other than some vague square-dancing during “The Farmer and the Cowman,” everyone just waggles and hops around. The exception is the legendary dream ballet, choreographed this time by James Heginbotham. Fish relocates the sequence to open the second act. It’s accompanied by a pre-recorded track (why?) that features electric guitar with heavy distortion and lots of electronic clicks. A single dancer, Gabrielle Hamilton, dressed in dance shorts and an oversized, sparkly T-shirt that reads “Dream Baby Dream,” gallops around the stage and then does a whole bunch of Modern Dance. At one point, Laurey comes on stage and the dancer sticks her foot in Laurey’s face and draws it down the length of her body. Laurey leaves, and there’s some more Modern Dance. Cowboy boots start dropping from the ceiling. About ten or so. Jud enters crawling on his belly and collects all the boots. There’s some more Modern Dance. Will enters with his video camera, and films the dancer, projecting her head 30-feet high again. (Will works on a scale both intimate and large.) More Modern Dance. So much Modern Dance. Then, long after any love you may have had for modern dance has been crushed onto the unfinished pine plywood floor, the cast enters and begins “The Farmer and the Cowman.” (A friend pointed out that it was smart of Fish to move the dream ballet to the second act. If left in its original position, as the first act finale, the audience would be exiting in droves at intermission.)

Prior to seeing this production, I would have thought Oklahoma! deserved all the condescension that could be mustered. But Fish’s contempt not only for this unjustly hallowed work of cornpone confusion but for musicals in general, and especially for the pleasure they might give an audience, is boundless, so condescension masked as hip irony is everywhere, as inescapable as the unfinished pine plywood.

At intermission, the cast serves chili with cornbread. I didn’t have any. I like my chili and cornbread irony-free.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

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