Rhonda and I went to see Our Town at Clark Youth Theatre last weekend. I had some idea of what to expect based on my interview with Whitson Hanna the week before. Even as we took our seats 20 minutes before curtain, we were already immersed in an environment that constantly blurred the distinction between reality of the story and the reality of the story tellers.
As we walked up the aisle, I recognized an young actor in the seats who I knew was cast as the Stage Manager (one of two actors playing the Stage Manager in this production). “Hey, Liam [Goodwin], these seats taken?” No problem apparently, so we sat down and struck up a conversation. Just to our left were three teens in a newly constructed tech booth, engaged in controlling the content of the three large video screens that defined the stage. We watched social media streams, YouTube videos, pictures of past productions of Our Town . . . honestly, I don’t remember all the content, just that it was constantly changing, and included selfies and Facebook postings from people in the audience. And remember, this is all before the show starts.
And then this constant stream of media continued throughout the show.
Our Town was very much a theatrical experiment when it was written. No scenery to speak of, no props, a constant breaking of the fourth wall. Even the forks were imaginary. How could this hi-tech, web based scenic design work with this lowest of low tech shows?
Great, actually. And it comes down to the skillful blurring of the lines between story and storyteller, the continual breaking of that fourth wall. The young actors that portray these characters—Doc Gibbs, Mr. Webb the editor of the paper, Simon(a) Stimson, the alcoholic choir director—are, in reality, young actors. They fit as naturally within this social media/video environment as Olivier fit between proscenium walls. The electronic stream brought a youthful energy to the stage that matched the actors enthusiasm. And crucially, this wasn’t just a concept that was left mostly theoretical. Director Whitson Hanna fleshed out these ideas with imagination and impressive variety, and fully integrated the cast into the concept. It wasn’t just a case of young actors being given an interesting set by their adult directors; they were active participants. And I loved the idea, cleverly implemented, of posting to Facebook in their character names. Surprisingly, all of this fits fine within Thornton Wilder’s approach to theatre—minimize illusion, confront the audience with the reality of the actor, tell the story like it mattered to the here and now of the performance.
The takeaway here (since the show closed last week, it’s not really a review) is that Clark Youth Theatre refuses to follow the same, overly traveled path that most youth theatres fear to deviate from. The young participants there are treated like the budding artists they are, given challenging material to explore, and have the chance to be a part of shows that would do any actor proud. And yes, full disclosure, I’m prejudiced. I spent the last 12 years making theatre with Clark and am still on the Board. And I still know a lot of these actors because I’ve worked with them on other shows. But it’s still true, imho, that Clark is working with these teens and preteens on a level you would not expect to find in a city this size.
We enjoyed our evening at Clark, watching a classic play done in a new way. Kudos to director Whitson Hanna and the theatre, and congratulations to the cast—another great job.
As only a handful of American works have, its incarnations as book and movie achieved an almost perfect synthesis; the images of the movie so entangled with the memories of reading the book that they reinforced themselves like building waves on a beach. The recent, questionable release of Go Set a Watchman doesn’t detract from the power or the phenomenon of the original. In fact, it almost certainly reignited interest in Lee’s one true work, an interest that, now fueled anew by Lee’s death this week, will hopefully provoke a another generation to discover the power and profound compassion of this American masterpiece.
Playhouse Tulsa’s production of Mockingbird at the PAC is part of an ongoing, culture-wide tribute to Lee’s accomplishment. We want to be reminded of and re-experience this story again, even if for the first time (remember, it’s already in our unconscious, just from the fact of our living here in a culture that it’s helped shape). And so the play is produced in Tulsa as it has been across the country; and so a sequel of dubious quality becomes a national best seller; and so, finally, Harper Lee’s passing provokes and will continue to provoke an outpouring of tributes and memorials, from writers and readers and people who simply remember the first time they ever saw Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. We look for reasons to return to this image of America that is infinitely worse than it should be, and yet, in the courage of Atticus, the dignity of Tom Robinson, and the simple compassion of Scout, infinitely better than we are.
The play as performed by Playhouse Tulsa and as directed by Courtneay Sanders is neatly divided into 3 sections. It begins without curtain speech or dimming of lights with music, thrilling music, a Sunday morning in the Negro church, a glimpse into the life of the black community of Maycomb.
While reading my favorite political website, PoliticalWire.com, I came across this: “Unless the GOP race becomes a two-man contest very quickly, Trump will win. The deadline to finding just one Trump-alternative is fast approaching.”
Well, allow me to retort. Yes, this is the Conventional Wisdom—the Establishment needs to unite behind one candidate, and do it quickly. But that’s actually the Conventional Stupidity. If Poor Bush, Krazy Kasich and Gentle Ben all dropped out today, enough of their voters would go over to Trump to make his nomination all but certain. No, the only way to stop Trump is for four, or preferably all five of his opponents to stick around.
Let me explain. No, there is too much, let me sum up. If it’s a 3 way between Trump, Cruz, and Rubio (Good God, take that image from my mind), then just enough of the other guys’ supporters are going to Trump to insure he wins pretty much every primary with right around 50% of the vote. That will give him more than enough delegates to win, and even if it doesn’t, the “super-delegates”, the big wigs who go to the convention automatically and can vote for anyone they want, won’t be able to vote against the person who won almost all the primaries, at least, not without risking a full on revolt from the base that might destroy the party for a generation.
But, if all the candidates stay in, Trump never gets more than 40% in any state, and less than that in most. That way, no one goes into the convention with enough delegates to win on the first ballot. And after the first ballot, all bets are off. We will be in uncharted waters then folks. Any of the current candidates are then allowed to convince enough delegates to switch their votes, so anyone could end up with the nomination. In fact, the delegates can vote for Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion if they want, and choose The Tick as his running mate. Which would be an improvement over the current field.
What could convince delegates to switch to another candidate? Welll, money, according to the Supreme Court, is speech. Incredibly persuasive speech as a matter of fact. So it might just come down to who’s willing to spend the most. The Donald, rich though he be, is a cheap skate. And he wouldn't be able to respond in time to an all out Establishment blitz, if they somehow decided to play by the rules. After all, they wrote the rules. I wouldn't bet against any of the established candidates at this point, as long as they all stay in until the end. But otherwise, it's all over.
Normally, if I was going to write about a show written and directed by an 18 year old, and whose lead actor was 15, I’d do this: Pick out my favorite moments, point out and post some pics of the standout actors, and, if I enjoyed the show, I’d say so. Simple and sweet.
Cowboy, written and directed by 18 year old Jack Allen with 15 year old Knox Blakely in the lead, does not, cannot, slot into any kind of “normal” category. Why? Well, let’s start out with the obvious. These two toddlers are the jewels in a setting of long time Tulsa theatre vets Andy Axewell, Dale Sams, John and Sara Cruncleton, and more, all of whom are considerably older. The play was close to 3 ½ hours long (must be something in the air over at the Nightingale). It dealt—intelligently—with issues of justice, morality, the current political situation, and the nature of civilization. And the language was a little saltier than you’d expect to hear from kids this age.
No, let me amend that last one. The language was a lot saltier than what you’d expect to hear from kids this age.
So what’s going on here? And what can I say about it?
Let’s start with the play. Allen’s created an absurdist epic that stretches from coast to coast and beyond. It’s a world where space and time are arbitrary, identity is flexible, and a cowboy hat pulls off a mass killing. Nine characters, each with their own distinctive voice, interact in a kaleidoscope of shifting circumstances and emotional states. We are presented with three acts, each one with a unique tone and progressing with a kind of absurdist logic towards something that at least resembles a resolution. The play achieves a variety of moods and gives space for a spectrum of theatrical effects. Most spectacularly, the end of the 2nd act is a theatrical tour de force that provokes widely varied reactions from the audience.
As for the actors: In a reversal of what we might expect, the older and more experienced actors embody archetypes and tend towards stereotypical behaviors, while the young couple at the heart of the play, Cowboy and Cowgirl, played by Knox Blakely and Kelly Leake, have subtly nuanced roles that require a huge range of emotional responses. Leake is apparently new to Tulsa, looks to be mid-20’s, and is obviously talented and extremely likeable onstage. Blakely does an outstanding job with a huge role that requires a ridiculous range of skills. It would be an admirable and noteworthy performance for an adult. Knox is 15. At that point the noteworthy becomes remarkable.
Thematically, the play attempts and largely succeeds in examining and remarking on a wide range of topics. The 3 word definition of civilization manages both to confront our current political dilemma at the same time it feels timeless. Entertainment wise, the play fully embodies Allen’s absurdist humor that has been on display in his standup and sketch comedy over the last few years. Verbally, the characters speak both as real people and with the same unique flair that so impressed me about his longer poems.
So. Do the excellences of these varied elements add up to a masterpiece of absurdist theatre, something resembling a perfect play? No. To get immediately to the point, an 18 year old simply cannot be completely successful in his first full length play when his aspirations are this sky high. Story telling remains crucial, even in absurdist pieces; Allen’s facility with language tempts him to verbal gymnastics that lead him into narrative detours and cul-de-sacs. The show would have benefitted from being at least 30 minutes shorter—knowing the limits of what your audience and your actors are capable of is part of creating the theatrical experience. Thematically, having something clever to say about everything is not near as effective as putting one particular idea in a pressure cooker, setting on high, and seeing what explodes.
On a scale of 1 to 10? Don’t be ridiculous, that kind Consumer Reports approach doesn’t have any place in a discussion of the arts, and most especially in evaluating a piece like this. Let’s talk about meaning and potentialities instead.
Cowboy may premiere a new and unique voice in American drama. That’s how different and promising it is. If Allen continues along the artistic trajectory we’ve witnessed over the last few years, Cowboy may eventually be seen as an immature work, but only in context of what an 18 year old can create vs. what’s possible for someone with several more plays and a lot more life experience under his belt. Will this happen? Who knows, but even the possibility should make you at least a little bit curious. At the Nightingale for 2 more weekends. In a word: Intriguing.
I’ve wanted to interview Whit Hanna for awhile now, and this seemed like a good time, since the Our Town he directed is going up this week at Clark/Henthorne. With three kids now, Whit didn’t want to lose an entire evening with his family, so I schlepped over to the Hanna/Scarberry household and we talked there.
FRANK: So, kids. There’s just kids everywhere here. And Odeum has its own baby boom, all these kids.
WHIT: And there’s another one coming in March.
FRANK: Really! With who?
WHIT: Dara and David.
WHIT: Kid number in two in March.
FRANK: I kinda vaguely recall hearing about that. Hard to keep up. So how has this whole, expanding families thing affected your work.
WHIT: [Laughing] Well, it’s obviously cut down on what we can do. I think we’re getting back into it, somewhat.
FRANK: OK, it’s affected how much you can do. And of course it’s why we’re doing this here at your house rather than at some coffee shop or bar. Has it affected anything else about your work? Play selection, what theatre means to you?
WHIT: It’s definitely affected my understanding of parental relationships [and how those are portrayed onstage]. That’s something you can’t fully understand until you have a child. For me personally? It’s made me very, very selective about what I want to work on. As opposed to, ‘let’s put on five shows this season and work on everything all the time.’ No, it’s “I want to work on this, with these people.” I’ve gotten these opportunities, Zoo Story [with Will Carpenter], God of Carnage [a TATE winner last year, with wife Erin and the Cruncletons] . . .
FRANK: What’s coming up?
WHIT: Our Town really, for me.
FRANK: I want to talk about Our Town, because I hear some really interesting things about the different approach you’re taking, but let’s leave that til a little later. What about Odeum?
Really, with these guys in the cast, how can I go wrong?
Arts Alliance Tulsa
Green Room OK
Tulsa Little Theatre
Tulsa Weekly Roundup
Am. Theatre Co.
BA Community Playhouse
Clark Youth Theatre
G Rated Theatre
Midwestern Theater Co.
Muskogee Little Theatre
Owasso Comm. Theatre
Sand Springs Comm. Th.
Sapulpa Comm. Theatre
Tulsa Latino Theatre
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Tulsa Rep. Musicals
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