If the function of architecture is to create contemplative spaces, then the theater has become a place for ghosts. In O, Earth, Casey Llewellyn gathers spirits on stage to dissect political realities and queer futures, unraveling these tales through the outline of Thornton Wilder’s classic, Our Town.
The original play is a metatheatrical contemplation of life and death in a small New England town. Sound boring? Many of the characters in O, Earth think so, too. The only character who seems deeply attached to the original narrative is the playwright himself (played by Martin Moran), who is also, incidentally, the first ghost to appear onstage. Shovel in hand, Wilder digs into the hillside in search of the time capsule buried at the end of the original Our Town play.
Presented by the Foundry Theater at Here, O, Earth allows Wilder and his creations to rebel. Baseball-playing George (Jess Barbagallo) is transgender and his girlfriend, Emily (Kristen Sieh), is a feminist who leaves him in pursuit of an existential Ellen DeGeneres (Moe Angelos). The Stage Manager (Donnetta Livinia Grays) is a black woman who feels invisible, forced to tell this story about a group of white people without the ability to become a fully-realized character herself.
To its detriment, the stage overflows with a large cast of characters. Aside from the Our Town cast, we also have a depressed Portia DeRossi (Emily Davis), a campy gay couple (Ato Blankson-Wood and Tommy Heleringer), as well as transgender icons back from the dead, Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson (Cecilia Gentili and Julienne “Mizz June” Brown). Oh, and a whale that Wilder unearths during his dig.
Directed by Dustin Wills, the show’s slim 90-minutes allow only enough time for short glimpses into the interior lives of its characters. Ironically, Wilder warns George that he won’t be happy until he finds a way to express himself. “It’s important,” he says, “to find a way to put yourself into language.” In other wise words, Johnson consoles the Stage Manager, telling her that what she projects to the audience from the stage may not be so important. “Can they see you? Can you see you?”
The beauty of these conversations on gender and race outshine those on the history of the gay rights movement, which feel both didactic and ill-researched. Rivera asks Wilder why he didn’t include the Stonewall Riots in Our Town. “I thought he was part of the family,” she says. Too bad Wilder was not only (believed to be) an extremely closeted gay man, but he also published the play a good 30 years before Stonewall. In another odd scene, Johnson takes over DeGeneres’s talk show. Rivera soon dominates the conversation, accusing the audience of pinkwashing queer history clean of its transgender founds and racial justice collaborators. While this is certainly true in a broader sense, such criticism should probably be reserved for educational institutions, and corporations who skew the truth for lucrative ends. Not for the audience that willfully attends a queer play.
Whatever its shortcomings, O, Earth has a soul as pure and entertaining as the ghosts that haunt the stage. Although it sputters out at the end, the play is rife with a passion to understand the malaise of unexamined identity. It’s a poignant commentary on our commitment to ourselves, to find our identities, and to defend them until the bitter end and beyond.
O, Earth by Casey Llewellyn continues at Here (145 Ave of the Americas, Soho, Manhattan) through February 20.