7/7/2019 HAIR Serenbe Playhouse
***½ ( B )
AU NATURELE (REDUX)
A (too) short six years ago, Serenbe Playhouse brought is into a meadow and let the sunshine in with a vibrant and memorable production of Hair. My response was muted praise, citing the concept and performances, while criticizing the play itself, as well as a staging choice made at the end.
This time around, we’re in the same meadow with the same Day-Glo Bus, but with a new concept and a new cast. Hoping to capture the 50th-anniversary Zeitgeist of Woodstock, director Brian Clowdus and his design team have created a mini-Woodstock, with an elevated concert stage, lighting scaffolds that recreate a ‘60’s-style concert with 21st-century technology and given us half of a show in full (well approaching evening) daylight. For a while this concept works very well indeed. Using recordings from the Woodstock soundtrack as pre-show, interspersed with imitative Serenbe-centric announcements, puts us in the mood, and early interactions with the friendly cast adds a sense of “Be-In” before the play even starts. And the opening numbers are staged energetically, reminiscent of music festivals of the era.
On the other hand, this time the audience is somewhat removed, so much of the intimacy of 2013 is lost; especially the acrobatic “sex” sequence, staged almost over our heads six years ago, but now a safe distance away.
And, somewhere along the line, the concept seems to float away like so much second-hand doobie smoke, and the play’s flaws come to the fore. And, the same staging choice is made at the end as was made in 2013, but this time, a strong lighting design for the final number overcame a lot of my not-met-expectations reservations.
Since so much remains the same from the 2013 staging, let me recreate (and adjust) my 2013 review:
Groovy, Far Out, and Outta Sight! Serenbe Playhouse is going au naturele for its production of Hair, the "American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" by Gerome Ragni, James Rado, and Galt MacDermott. I have long been a fan of the show, its songs, its high spirits, and its break-the-fourth-wall free-flowing style. I was a huge fan of its 1979 movie adaptation.
I liked the movie so much, in fact, that Twyla Tharp's eccentric and energetic choreography, for some time, ruined this play with anyone else’s dance vision for me. Fortunately, here, choreographer Bubba Carr has created some beautiful dance moments (even, dare I say, suggesting some of Ms. Tharp's moments) that keep the cast and audience breathless with excitement and energy. The new staging gives him a wider canvas for brilliantly idiosyncratic group dynamics and visuals.
On the other hand, let’s be honest here, what was “ground-breaking” in 1968 has become overdone to the point of triteness by now. The show is showing its age. Granted, there are some excellent high points, but there are even more low points -- an LSD sequence that takes forever and can probably be used by anti-drug groups to keep kids AWAY from acid, and a gaggle of self-indulgent characters who seem allergic to any personal responsibility. The LSD sequence also jars with the show's “Woodstock” concept -- up to that point, we are seeing the tribe perform and party, often becoming part of their tribe. Now, suddenly, we're inside Claude's head with the tribe taking on numerous roles, most of them silly and pointless (his fear of the war is long established, so bringing out all these historical figures in conflict grows really redundant really quickly.) We in the audience, who were once passive participants are now disinterested observers, and, frankly, watching someone else's acid trip is NEVER a good time. It’s as if we’re watch Woodstock and the brown acid wears off while everyone else’s is still going strong. To his credit, Lighting Designer Kevin Frasier keeps the modern computer-driven effects confined to this sequence, as if recreating all the color and light exploding in Claude’s mind.
Let me just touch on a few other things that haven’t aged well. The original “Do your own thing” vibe that permeated a lot of the hippie culture, now comes across as more “Do your own thing as long as it’s the same as ours.” Since 1968, “countercultures” have proliferated with the wild abandon of evolutionary microbes. The anti-establishment milieu on display here is only one of many various subcultures that capture the attention of the young and the idealistic, and it makes all the characters disturbingly alike. The personal journey of Claude is still compelling (and the driving force of the plot), and the movie made the absolutely brilliant choice of making him a true outsider. In that case, we saw the “tribe” through his eyes, and it made his acceptance of them (and their acceptance of him) so much more dramatically compelling than the “view from the inside” look the play offers. Here, I got the feeling “my thing is not lying around all day getting stoned” would not be an acceptable choice.
Another thing is the infamous nude scene at the close of Act One. In 1968, it was indeed daring and vivid. We’ve now been jaded by so much on-stage freedom and on-line pornography that its unmotivated from-left-field nature is fully apparent. It’s not shocking now so much as distracting. As before, the distraction was minimized by the really REALLY dim lighting and the plumes of stage fog. Still, I can think of at least a dozen better-motivated moments in the show for spontaneous nakedness.
A few of the performances this time aren’t quite up to the 2013 staging. Berger and Claude both are very cruel to the women in their lives, and come across far too often as real jerks. It’s usually up to the actors to show is the charm beneath the cruelty, the charisma that accounts for their magnetic effect on the tribe. Here, I’m afraid the actors fell a little short in that department, and I saw little reason for their appeal to the others. OTOH, the women were ALL spectacular. Shannon McCarren, Alexandra Joy, Brooke Bradley, and Casey Shuler all created indelible characters and have the voices of ‘60’s rock goddesses. Seeing how they’re treated by the male characters is just another alienating factor on hand here.
Now. About that ending. "The Flesh Failures" normally revolves around Claude cutting his hair, donning a uniform, and, amidst the chorus of "Let the Sunshine in," coming home in a box (I assume this is no spoiler, considering the age of the show). The tragic circumstances coupled with these particular songs never fail to deliver a gut-punch that underscores the "Live for Now" theme with real consequence. Here, we see Claude with his hair clipped, but wrapped in a flag, not entombed in a uniform. It gives the moment a political spin not earned by the set-up -- Claude is, after all, going to fight to discover himself, not because of any overwhelming sense of patriotism. And symbolically assigning "blame" to patriotism alone short-changes the thousands of complex rationales that drove the Viet Nam debacle.
Of greater consequence, we never see Claude in his box, he just leaves the playing area. Not to be blunt, but this totally robs the "Let the Sunshine In" chorus of its power -- it comes across as just another exuberant chorus number because we don't see the tragedy underscoring it. OTOH, unlike in the 2013 staging, here we do see the characters mourning his loss, we hear the desperate plea in their song, we see the “sunlight” putting them in silhouette, almost becoming a part of them. It is a beautiful ending, better than I could have hoped for considering my preconceptions of how the show “should” end.
All criticism aside, this is still a wonderful experience. The songs have the same power they always had, the portrait of youthful idealism tempered by painful (possibly fatal) choices is still relevant, the show itself is much redeemed by the in-the-middle-of-nowhere meadow setting, and the Woodstock-y concept enhances everything it touches, until it fades away.. We have a group of performers here who possess the talent and energy to sell the songs, even much of the muted-by-time philosophy and plot. My grumpy side wishes the men had more charm, but, well, I am an old Baby-Boomer who too often wants to tell those durn kids to “Get off My Youth!”
In spite of the creaks and cracks that fifty years have added to the show, it’s still a pleasant wallow in the songs and ideals of (some of) our youths. If the intervening years have shown that the Age of Aquarius is yet to come, possibly even a delusion, it’s still good to be relive that idealism that only youth and tasting-freedom-for-the-first-time can provide.
With the weather being what it is these days, we don’t really need a trip to Hair to “Let the Sunshine In,” but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #SerenbePlayhouse #Hair)