Unlike any shows before and few since, the musical Hair was produced in several U.S. cities at the same time it was still on Broadway. I saw it in San Francisco in 1969. I had a friend in the cast, who'd been the lead in the play I wrote and directed at college a year before, a similar '60s-spirited extravaganza called What's Happening, Baby Jesus? (So we were pre-J.S. Superstar as well.) We were a bit snobbish about Hair — it seemed so 1966. A year seemed like a decade then.
But now everything old is new again, especially as there's so much linking 2008 with 1968, when Hair premiered on Broadway. That symmetry surprised director Vikki Young when Ferndale Rep decided to do a 40th anniversary production of the original American tribal love-rock musical. "Forty years ago we were embroiled in an unpopular war, there were racial issues, economic, environmental issues, and it was an election year," she said. "Here we are 40 years later, and nothing has changed. As a matter of fact, we've probably stepped slightly backward."
"When I started this I had no idea that I would be so affected by this play. It is so timely — the images, the songs, the message that it delivers probably is more valid today than it was back then."
The process of developing the production with a large, integrated cast whose ages range from 18 to 60 was particularly powerful, Young said. She found herself explaining a lot to the younger actors, like who LBJ and Margaret Mead were. On the other hand, one of the older actors is "just getting to the point where she can do the final number without bursting into tears."
Ferndale Rep's production begins this weekend with a preview on Thursday, April 3. It feature's a five-piece band with musical direction by Tom Phillips, and choreography by Linda Maxwell. There will, however, be no nudity, as there famously was in the original. "At first I was going to do it, but then I thought — why?" Young said. "Back then it was done as a message — today you see nudity on national television. It's not shocking. This is something we didn't need to do."
But there's no avoiding the political themes, and the Ferndale production won't even try. That's certainly in the spirit of the original — it played nationally while it was still on Broadway because the producers wanted to spread its anti-Vietnam war message.
"I don't think any of us have ever seen such excitement about a show coming to our stage," Young said, the anticipation primarily coming from those who remember the show from its LBJ/MLK/RFK-era past. But a young, energetic cast and the show's eerie relevance today may make it a hot ticket for the Obama generation, too.
Also beginningthis weekend, College of the Redwoods presents La Bête, a comedy in verse by contemporary playwright David Hirson. CR drama instructor Kjeld Lyth directs.
This play about a 17th century theatre company was Hirson's first, and received an elaborate Broadway production in 1991 that resulted in several Tony nominations. New York Times critic Frank Rich praised its ambition to create "a mock-Moliere comedy of manners and ideas as refracted through (or deconstructed by) a post-modern sensibility," though he didn't think it succeeded. But it was a hit later in London, winning a Laurence Olivier Award for best comedy. It's since been done by regional theatres.
This production of La Bête will be "performed at breakneck speed in an absurdly high-comic style," according to the CR description. In this play and his subsequent comedy, Wrong Mountain, playwright Hirson satirizes the contemporary theatre for its high art pretensions and low standards. Critics and audiences have argued over whether he does so successfully. Your chance to experience the play and join the argument comes this weekend and next, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. in the CR Forum Theater. There's also a matinee this Sunday (April 6) at 2 p.m.
Also this weekend,an experiment begins at the Arcata Playhouse where Dell'Arte, Four on the Floor Theatre and a Canadian company collaborate on Crawdaddy: A Freak Tragedy, a work-in-progress about a Depression-era freak show. It also runs two weekends, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8. Watch this space for more next week.
Finally, Helen, a contemporary comedy about Helen of Troy, has its final three performances this weekend in the Gist Hall Theatre, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm. I am involved to a more than usual degree in this HSU production (the director, Margaret Thomas Kelso, is my partner), so use that information in judging my integrity, but I feel readers who usually agree with my observations will want to know about this intelligent, theatrical comedy, and its uniformly fine performances. In particular, Darcy Daughtry, who has appeared in smaller roles in various community productions, is wonderful as Helen.
One bit of oldbusiness: Last week I found myself in the odd position of writing a letter to the editor about my own column, objecting to the term "trailer trash" that appeared in a subhead (that I didn't write). The letter was printed under a clever headline I still don't understand, so I thought I'd better explain here why I find the term objectionable — with an appropriately theatrical anecdote.
In an American Theatre magazine interview, playwright Lucy Thurber recalled a conversation she had with August Wilson (a great American playwright who wrote about the African-American experience) at a playwrights conference several years ago. Explaining her own plays, Thurber told him, "I write about poor white trash." Wilson asked her, "Are you trash?" "No," she said, "I'm just using it as a descriptive term to explain that part of the population." "Again, I ask you," Wilson said, "are you trash? Are the people that you grew up with trash? Are the people you love trash?"
"That was a huge, emotional moment for me," Thurber said in the interview. "The language we use about ourselves is important. There is something about having the courage to talk with dignity and trust and faith about these parts of America that are us."
And as Obama and RFK both might say, we're all us.
More at stagematters.blogspot.com.