ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, New York — The original Oklahoma! musical from 1943 is set in the 1900s, during a much “simpler” time. Happiness was a field of wheat, 50 dollars was a significant sum of money, and a seven-story building was a skyscraper. Based on the 1931 play by Lynn Riggs, the musical now playing at Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts is a modern creation myth about a lawless, backwards territory full of simple folk with simple minds and the gory bloodshed necessary to transform the area into an upstanding member of the union with full-fledged statehood and the rule of law. Through the dual lenses of Broadway and Hollywood we get a quaint, idealized vision of the inhabitants’ penchant for sex and violence.
Cowboy Curly (Damon Daunno) loves farm girl Laurey Williams (Amber Gray). Their respective occupations make them more star-crossed than modern audiences might imagine. Curley’s machismo precludes him from being as emotionally honest as Laurey would like. She foils his halfhearted advances with the threat of going to the big dance with the hired hand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill). This seems ill-advised as Jud is alternately suicidal, murderous, and a potential rapist. Laurey appears to be a master manipulator of men, but will her machinations pay off or will she get everyone killed?
After the show blows through the two best-known numbers “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’” and “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” we’re treated to “Kansas City,” in which the country bumpkin Will Parker recounts the wonders he’s recently witnessed in the modern city. Director Daniel Fish and his exceptionally inventive creative team had us feeling like a couple of Will Parkers, rediscovering modern life along with him. We were not prepared for the sheer volume of invention packed into this tiny house in the backwoods.
This production thrusts you into the action from the moment you walk into the theater. Staged in the round, the performance invites you to inhabit the set along with the actors who sit and watch the proceedings with you when they aren’t “in” a scene. The line between audience and performance is further blurred by the presence of crock-pots that appear at regular intervals along tables in front of every seat in the house. The temptation to partake not just of the show but also of food and drink set before us was almost too much when an actor opened a can of beer. Our patience was rewarded when at intermission the chili from the pots was finally served, along with lemonade and corn bread. This isn’t your parent’s dinner theater.
While the audience is welcome at this communal table, Jud, the hapless villain of the piece — whose only crime seems to be loving the same woman as our rugged handsome lead, but is not rugged and handsome himself — is ostracized. The audience is incriminated along with the community for this ugly act of groupthink by house lights which are rarely lowered. We the audience are the townsfolk.
With all-new, countrified musical arrangements by Daniel Kluger, the show has all the bombast and bravado of the 1955 film version but it also takes a searing look into the darkness of our hero’s heart. In a startling scene, which begins in pitch blackness and ends with Blair Witch-esque night vision video projections, Curly convinces Jud to kill himself. While true to the original text, the execution of the scene is fresh and unprecedented. Presented in the past as a hypothetical sort of joke, the seriousness of Curly’s suggestion in this version lays bare the brutishness of human nature — Curly is willing to kill to get what he wants. With all the talk of eminent statehood framing the proceedings, we’re asked to ponder the bloodiness of our country’s history and our complacency in the face of cruelty.
With Oklahoma!‘s excessive popularity amongst high schools and regional theaters, the current production at Bard College, two hours north of civilization, could have been easily overlooked. Adjacent to the northernmost Two Boots Pizza, the restaurant’s creators are alumni; this outpost of theatrical creativity perennially flourishes in the city’s off-season, fed by a bumper crop of downtown talent which migrates north for the summer. If there is any justice in the American theater, we should see this stunning production moved somewhere closer to Stumptown coffees and Magnolia Bakeries in the near future.
Oklahoma! continues at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts (Bard College, 30 Campus Road, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York) through July 19.
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