How Smart is OKLAHOMA?
Somewhere midway through watching the director Daniel Fish’s radical reduction of Oklahoma! (at St. Anne’s, sold out through November 11th but there’s a waiting list?), I began to hear the voices of my peers and mentors through the ages in my head, commenting on what I was seeing on my behalf. So smart, they murmured in a tone of self-satisfied admiration. Very… intelligent. I found myself aligning with them, but also began to question what that meant, for a performance to be called smart.
Might it mean just the opposite of dumb, or stupid theater? Dumb/stupid theater, in my estimation, is a second cousin to cheesy reductive “entertainment”. Schtick like a stick, the better which to bop you over the head with. It is not possible to miss this type of theater’s over-telegraphed emotional peaks. It’s laugh/cry or die (and often times, I’m the one doing the dying). Yet, sometimes dumb/stupid theater works. It can be fun stupid, or just stupid-stupid. The measurement between the two is indistinct, more a taste meter than an objective point of view. Some like it stupid, some like it smart. I suppose some must like it both ways, although I haven’t met very many of those people.
So if that’s stupid, what’s smart? I’ll argue that the ‘smart’ work has something going on that is unobvious, difficult to describe or execute. ‘Smart’ might indicate an requisite pre-eduction in order to approach to the work – for me, a lot of dance is like this, in that it often requires an understanding of a existing contextual dialogue or conversation in order to fully comprehend the overall objective or artistic gesture of the creator. It might require more work on the part of the audience than what might be considered ‘on the average’ in order for them to understand or access it. If extending the analogy to books, the ‘smart’ novel would be heavily skewed towards the literary, a substantial distance between it and trashy romance novels that line every airport newsstand. My favorite kind of smart work (book, play, movie, tv show alike) is simply that which creates a new and compelling space between the subject matter and the presentation of said matter – it creates a buzzy, thought provoking high by positioning its audience in a new/different way and/or trusting its audience by granting the freedom to interpret the work by allowing multiple viewpoints that don’t dominate the viewing experience.
That Fish’s Oklahoma! succeeds in doing just that without making significant alteration to its original source not only makes it smart, but also uniquely provocative. It is intelligent, positioned probably more for the sophisticated viewer – an audience must be able to recognize how the musical-theater form is being (subtly) subverted in order to maintain the proper director-prescribed distance from the work, and there aren’t many emotional cues being provided, particularly from Curly and Laurey, who both perform as though they’re in cinematic close-up rather than on a stage. The vocal aesthetic is closely aligned with a New York Players-style neutrality rather than the belt-it-to-the-rafters stylings that one might expect from a prototypical musical theater experience. The performances are flattened somewhat, removed from characterization, and generally non-emotive. When the actors sing, the audience must lean in a bit in order to really hear the songs. This feels intentional, especially when counter-acted by the occasional direct-to-handheld microphone-sung songs, which allow the actors to suddenly and radically amplify themselves at certain key moments. Sometimes this lack of projection is also annoying – I can certainly imagine the front-of-house staff being accosted by older folks at intermission that someone needs to go backstage and tell the actors to speak up, for heaven’s sake.
It should also be noted that clearing the smart hurdle isn’t necessarily that difficult. One might call it the act of ‘downtownifying’ of a work, and one has probably seen it quite a few times in various iterations. Remove emotional cueing, play hard against any pre-existing sentimental content, communicate your POV as artistically aloof, and you’re almost there. Also, smart doesn’t necessarily equal good, and I suspect that many audience members quickly grow tired with the so-called smart work that veers into inaccessibility as a result. Elitism is always a risk.
So yes, there are scenes played in total darkness, there is video projection, there is a totally re-imagined dream ballet (that now opens the second act instead of finishing out the first) and there is a new twist on the ending drama that allows the final reprise of the titular song “Oklahoma” to feel like an indictment of America rather than (as one supposes it was originally positioned) a celebration of the American spirit.
But what makes this Oklahoma more than just smart is how it ruthlessly strips away the glaze of nostalgia that usually accompanies such restagings in order to uncover what seemingly must have always lurked there, submerged just below the musical’s glossy surface. It’s a different way of looking that sheds a disturbing amount of light on how we’re moved forward (or have failed to move) from the birth of our country through to the current moment. What used to feel fun (shotgun marriage, ha ha!) is now made queasy and destabilizing. Here, the American spirit is rendered – however appropriately – as blind to justice, deeply and problematically gendered, and rooted in systemic violence and distrust of outsiders. Or maybe, rather, this Oklahoma yanks America out by its roots and then lays that original source out for us to consider – is this what we’ve been consuming all this time?