Friday, 31 May 2019

Oklahoma! on Broadway (2019 Revival) | Theatre Review

The last time I was at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York, I was seeing Fun Home. That show had transformed the space into a dark living room reminiscent of Alison Bechdel's Pennsylvania home. Walking into that space to see Oklahoma is like walking into a brand new theatre -- it's bright, it's airy, and it's walls are covered in guns.

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Cast of Oklahoma! 2019 Broadway Revival (Credit)

I had never seen Oklahoma -- I know, I know. It's a classic, and a huge influence on the American theatre canon, but I just never saw it. I always thought "eh, it's Oklahoma, it's always going to be there. I don't need to prioritize it." But when all the buzz started about this production of Oklahoma, or Oklaheauxma, as it's been dubbed by Natalie Walker, I knew that I needed to get myself to the Circle in the Square. And what I found there was startling, uncomfortable at moments, and utterly piercing.

Daniel Fish's production started at Bard College in 2015, and then had a critically acclaimed run at the St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn in the fall of 2018, before transferring to Broadway in 2019 and garnering 8 Tony Award nominations. Fish's directorial vision of the oft-overlooked classic was praised for bringing out the darkness in the story, and thriving in the moments of uncomfortable silence and fear-based anticipation. And I agree ten-fold with these praises. I think that, in another other season on Broadway, Fish would absolutely be the one to take home the award for best direction, because of how unafraid he is to truly immerse himself in the undertones of the narrative.

The piece, staged as if in a community hall, invites every audience member to be part of the hall, to be a part of the piece. Whether you're sitting in the audience, in one of the onstage seats, or you're onstage during intermission eating the cornbread and chilli they're serving, you are part of the story. In moments of uncomfortable intimacy, and in moments of skin crawling fear, you're part of it. In moments when you do not want to be implicated in what is happening on stage, you're part of it. With the house lights on full blast for the majority of the show, everything is visible, even the reactions of people on the other side of the theatre. When you want to distance yourself, which was something I desperately wanted to do multiple times, you're not given the safety of a proscenium theatre.

Panoramic shot of the Circle in the Square Theatre (Photo: Me)

Technically, this show takes a lot of risks that pay off. The lighting design is brilliant and is essentially a character on stage. Why Scott Zielinski was not Tony nominated for his lighting design is absolutely beyond me, and is possibly one of the biggest snubs of the season. The lighting, which switches from full house lights, to being so dark that you can't see your hand in front of your face, focuses your attention on what is said and unsaid, seen and unseen. It asks you to pay attention to what is right in front of you, and why those things specifically are being shown. We see moments of searing intimacy drenched in green light, cueing feelings of lusty desire à la Gatsby and Daisy. The smoke house scene, with almost no lighting save for small 'bullet' holes in the ceiling make it feel as though you're in that smoke house, and you can't tell whether you're Curly or Judd in those moments. Zielinksi's lights also work so well in tandem with Joshua Thorson's projections and live video feeds, creating dynamic sightlines and chilling visuals.

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Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Duanno (Credit)

Of course, none of this works without the talent onstage to pull it off. Damon Daunno as Curly, and Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey have energy that can only be described as static and suffocating. Jones plays with silence so well that in moments when she's speaking, the audience can understand just how much she's holding back. And Duanno's Curly uses the guitar as an outlet for everything he wants to say and just can't find the voice for. The tone of the book, which still feels caught up in the propriety of the early 20th century South to a certain extent, becomes a limitation for communication, leaving our on stage cast members to truly excel in the physicality of their performances. Whenever Curly and Laurey are talking to one another, it feels as though they're only talking to keep from kissing, and they're only saying the words they're saying because they've never vocalized the kinds of desires they're desperate to ask for. It makes for theatre that keeps you on the edge of your seat, as well as making you melt.

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Patrick Vail and Will Brill (Credit)

Patrick Vail's Judd is heartbreaking and skin crawling. Throughout the entire show, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to reach out and protect him, or push him into the band pit. His performance is so nuanced, and it's hard to call him the villain, or the antagonist, or anything negative, because Vail so perfectly presents him within a liminal space. He's creepy, and as he sits onstage for the first section of the show, you can see him watching the other characters. His presences feels vulture-like, and you're not sure whether his goal is to protect or to feed. Even after thinking about this performance for days and days, I cannot put my finger on what it was about Judd that made my skin crawl, but also made my heartstrings sing.

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Ali Stroker and Will Brill (Credit)

Ali Stroker and Mary Testa, both Tony nominated for their roles as Ado Annie and Aunt Eller, respectively, round out the cast in such a brilliant way. Stroker's ability to lend comedy to her scenes without ever compromising her integrity is so special, and her presence onstage asks audiences to re-evaluate their relationship between sexuality and disability. And Testa, as the snarky and loving Aunt Eller brings a real sense of well needed humanity on that stage, until the final scene -- the trial -- where her role in the play and in the lives of the other characters becomes twisted and uncomfortable.

This version of Oklahoma is far from OK. It's disturbing, and dark, and it truly thrives when left to sit and fester in the darkness that has always existed in the script. It's a thrilling ride to sit in that theatre, and to be part of that intense and immersive community hall. From the electric "People will Say We're in Love" to the heart racing Dream Ballet at the top of the second act, and ending with a startling and immobile final scene, Daniel Fish directs your attention to what is easily glossed over, and presents it in a way that is both dreamy and hyper realistic. The romance and the humour is still so present, and it works to build undeniable layers to the telling of this classic story. When you leave the theatre, it feels uncomfortable to say that you loved it, but it feels like a disservice to say anything else.

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