theater review

Theater Review: An Oklahoma! Where the Storm Clouds Loom Above the Plain

Ali Stroker as Ado Annie. Photo: Teddy Wolff

Stephen Sondheim, comparing two big hits by Rodgers and Hammerstein, memorably quipped, “Oklahoma! is about a picnic, Carousel is about life and death.” I’m not sure if the director Daniel Fish set out to prove Sondheim wrong when he took on Oklahoma!, but that, among other fascinating and frightening things, is exactly what he’s done. Fish’s production — now at St. Ann’s Warehouse after a much-hyped premiere at Bard SummerScape in 2015 — retains the vivacity of the 1943 musical about two girls, four boys, and a box social, while revealing just how much sinister fog is mixed in with the show’s “bright golden haze.” The production’s sense of menace isn’t grafted onto the material but dug up from inside it, like a murky subterranean stream trickling beneath a sunny cornfield. Oklahoma! — which takes place in 1906 in the Indian territory that’s soon to become the title state — is only about a picnic insomuch as Carousel is about a clambake. Really, both shows are about the same things: sex and violence. And with its more communal lens, its potential for less resolution and sentimentality in its conclusion, and its focus on the dawn of U.S. nationhood, Oklahoma! emerges as the story that might actually show us more about ourselves right now. Without sacrificing the show’s humor or the beauty of its music, Fish and his company have created a charged, scary production, a story about the aggressions and ambiguities entwined deep in the root system of America.

“Oh, what a beautiful mornin’,” sings the cowboy Curly McLane (Damon Daunno), all cool charisma and unchallenged optimism. And in this Oklahoma!, when he reaches the words “I got a beautiful feelin’ / Ev’rythin’s goin’ my way,” there’s something unsettling about them. The playwright Antoinette Nwandu picked up on exactly this undercurrent in Curly’s song when she featured it at the beginning of her play Pass Over, which played at Lincoln Center earlier this year. There, as the cornfed baritone of Gordon McRae (from the film version) reverberated over the heads of two young black men — waiting out their days like Beckett characters, in perpetual fear of police violence — the question was clear: Everything’s going whose way? Whose rules shape this country? Who always wins?

The wiry, seductive Daunno doesn’t conform to the square, blond model of white American manhood that McRae embodies: He’s more indie-rock front man than singing quarterback, but he’s still Oklahoma!’s undeniable alpha male. If anything, Daunno’s Curly is a more complex and contemporary picture of self-satisfied masculinity. His sly, low-key swagger is instantly appealing, and his pliable voice can swoop and dive, glisten and crackle and croon at will. Under the dark curls, chill vibe, and artsy-sexy, I-play-my-own-guitar allure, his entitlement is harder to spot. But it’s there. And so is the disquieting resonance of his cheerful signature tune. Justice will be bent to make sure that everything does go Curly’s way. One of Fish’s vital interpretive strokes is to emphasize both Curly’s cruel streak and Laurey’s ambivalence, drawing out her emotional struggle as the heart of the play. In this Oklahoma!, which boy the girl chooses to take her to the picnic becomes a deadly game of no exit. Laurey’s options, the charming cowboy Curly and the brooding farmhand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), are revealed as almost equally disturbing. And a third option — independence from men, or at least from these men — doesn’t exist.

Rodgers and Hammerstein were skilled combiners of romantic A-plots with complementary comic B-plots, and in Oklahoma!, both primary and secondary story lines involve a woman choosing between suitors. While Laurey steps carefully around Curly and Jud, her irrepressible pal Ado Annie juggles the ardent, none-too-bright cowpoke Will Parker and the slippery, marriage-averse traveling peddler, Ali Hakim. (James Davis makes ebullient, robustly sung delight out of the doofy Will, and Michael Nathanson nearly steals the show with his deadpan turn as Ali, a rolling-stone opportunist who treats his Persian ancestry as just another bauble of uncertain authenticity, to attract local yokels.) Laurey, who’s wary and witty, and Ado Annie, who’s capricious and gloriously horny, usually come across as simple foils: the serious “good” girl and the featherbrained flirt. But here, along with Fish, the two remarkable actors Rebecca Naomi Jones and Ali Stroker have found something deeper. They appear not as opposites but as different shades of intense female desire — and the play they inhabit becomes about the domestication of that desire, about men’s attempts to define, possess, and control it via a binding, legal union.

“We know we belong to the land / And the land we belong to is grand!” the company sings with gusto during Oklahoma!’s title song. But once their territory gets its statehood, the land will belong incontestably to men like Curly — and so will the women. In a sense, we’re watching Ado Annie and Laurey in their last days of freedom, one playful and unapologetically thirsty, the other restrained, anxious, and wistful but no less desirous. Stroker is fantastic, with twangy country star mega-pipes and a devilish sense of humor. Her anthem to the joy of making out with boys (“I Cain’t Say No”) is a giddy, bawdy, self-aware delight, and her casting underlines the radical nature of watching a woman celebrate her own body, her own needs, her enjoyment of sex. Particularly when she’s a wheelchair user, as Stroker is.

Meanwhile, Jones’s Laurey is luminous and arch, with a rich, vibrant voice that becomes tender and vulnerable in its higher ranges. She holds herself straight and stares hard, seldom blinking. Her standoffish repartee with Curly is less a well-bred girl’s cover-up for obvious passion than it is actual uncertainty. Though her Aunt Eller (the formidable, dry-as-kindling Mary Testa, with a voice that could cut brick) swears to Curly that her niece likes him “quite a lot,” there’s more than a simple crush going on behind Jones’s dark, watchful eyes. She does like Curly, and she does flirt with him. She’s even got sympathy, and perhaps something more than sympathy, for the sullen, creepy Jud. But she wants — well, more. “Want things I’ve heared of and never had before,” she says when Ali shows up peddling his wares. “Want things I cain’t tell you about — not only things to look at and hold in yer hands. Things to happen to you. Things so nice, if they ever did happen to you, yer heart’d quit beatin’. You’d fall down dead!”

Jones zaps the fluffy romance from this text and delivers it with quiet intensity, almost with anger. Equally un-fluffed is her song “Out of My Dreams,” which Fish turns into a pensive, exposed first-act closer. It’s usually a sighing ballad, clearly nudging Laurey and Curly together: “Make up your mind, make up your mind, Laurey dear,” the play’s women sing. Here, the band cuts out for the song’s final verse, and Jones is left alone by her fellow actors, finding her way a cappella through fairy-tale lyrics whose object is still unclear. “Out of my dreams and into your arms I long to fly,” she sings, but in Jones’s serious face and searching voice, the you feels imaginary — arms without a body, desire without form. At the top of the second act, she’s still searching, and her internal struggle takes the form of a reenvisioned dream ballet, featuring the mesmerizing young dancer Gabrielle Hamilton. John Heginbotham’s athletic choreography makes reference to Agnes de Mille’s original steps (it was she who convinced Hammerstein to push Oklahoma!’s dream sequence, the first of its kind and a stylistic groundbreaker, into more menacing territory), but it dispenses with the original’s literalism. Here there’s no one-to-one interpretation through dance of Laurey’s anxiety over Curley and Jud: The men are gone. Instead, Hamilton, draped in a sequined T-shirt that reads “DREAM BABY DREAM”, goes it alone — or, almost alone. At times she’s joined by a corps of girls, all galloping through the space like wild colts.

By putting Hamilton at the center of Oklahoma!’s dream ballet, Fish and Heginbotham turn it into a dance for Laurey’s subconscious. Her want is embodied, and it gets almost 17 minutes of stage time all to itself, to leap and sweat and tumble and explore. It matters that Hamilton and Jones are both black women — Fish’s ensemble is diverse without explicit comment, but there are smart implicit dynamics at work. In the dream ballet, crucial but unacknowledged parts of Laurey’s identity get to come to the fore, explore the stage, and attempt to seek out their place — her place — in the world. And later, when it seems that the play’s characters are going to look the other way after a lethal crime, the cast’s two black men share a subtle but unmissable moment. Anthony Cason’s Cord Elam, a federal marshal, wants to see justice properly pursued, but Mike (Will Mann) flashes him a look that says: Let the white people kill each other if they insist.

As for the crime in question, it involves the two men looming over Laurey. The skinny, seething Vaill — who bears a passing resemblance to a young Willem Dafoe and should be first in line if they ever make a Kurt Cobain bio-musical — plays Jud as exactly what he is: the original incel. Lurking in a dark smokehouse where the walls are covered with pornographic posters, Jud describes his bitter agonies and fantasies in an ominous solo called “Lonely Room,” finally concluding, “I ain’t gonna dream ’bout her arms no more! / I ain’t gonna leave her alone! / Goin’ outside / Git myself a bride / Git me a woman to call my own.” It’s no wonder Laurey fears that Jud will “do sumpin terrible” if she refuses to go to the picnic with him: He’s an electric coil of barely suppressed violence waiting to spark a fire.

That smoldering aggression only gets worse when beta meets bro. One of Fish’s creepiest gestures comes during the song “Pore Jud” — a weird lament that’s conventionally played for dark comedy, but here comes off as an insidious act of psychological warfare. Curly, moping that he hasn’t gotten his way with Laurey, resolves to “go down here to the smokehouse, where Jud’s at. See whut’s so elegant about him, makes girls wanta go to parties ’th him.” When he arrives, Fish and lighting designer Scott Zielinski plunge the stage into pitch blackness. We hear only flat, tense voices through microphones. “That’s a good-lookin’ rope you got there,” observes Curly, “[And] a good strong hook you got there. You could hang yerself on that, Jud … It’d be as easy as fallin’ off a log.”

As Curly and Jud share a sinister duet about the imagined tragedy of Jud’s death (“You never know how many people like you till you’re daid,” sneers Curly), Fish and projections designer Joshua Thorson bring up a massive live-feed image of Vaill’s quivering, hungry-eyed face on one of the set’s walls. Curly croons and Jud grunts along — the former barely bothers to conceal his ugly mockery, but Jud’s is the kind of mind that’s particularly susceptible to fantasy and has a hard time spotting irony. His eyes glint and he almost drools at the idea of being loved and lamented. When the camera turns and shows us both Daunno’s and Vaill’s profiles, stretched out huge across a wall where a black-and-white vista of fields and ranch houses is painted, we get a nasty jolt: Here is the country inside of these men, and here are their brutalities laying the foundations for the country.

The fact that these resonances ring so immediately clear is a factor both of Fish’s work with his actors — whose simple, at times almost flat but always loaded delivery creates a kind of distance from the text, a feeling of simultaneous enactment and comment — and with his designers. Set designer Laura Jellinek contains the play inside a big, unpainted plywood box with the audience facing each other in two banks. Bright tinsel streamers hang in rows above the long, alley-style playing space. There are trestle tables, plastic coolers, and crockpots full of chili (you can have a cup of it, and some cornbread, at intermission!), and Zielinski’s lights are almost always piercingly bright on both audience and actors. You can’t hide in a bright yellow box. Jellinek’s set got me thinking about the architecture of conventional Broadway theaters — how nestling in the dark and watching a beautiful picture whose edges fade into blackness actively encourages romanticism and nostalgia. We don’t have to look at our fellow audience members or ourselves. Plush darkness obscures all that we don’t want to focus on. In this Oklahoma!, we can see everything — until the stark, chilling moments of true darkness in which we can see nothing at all. We —like the actors, who often stay on stage for scenes they aren’t in, lounging but sharp-eyed in Terese Wadden’s modern country-and-western costumes — are witnesses. We see where Jud’s mounting rage and Curly’s complacent territoriality will lead. We see the play’s ultimate act of violence — which Fish has daringly restaged — approaching, and we see how justice is willingly, willfully miscarried after it, in the broad light of day.

At the end of this Oklahoma!, Curly and Laurey stand newly married, wearing white and spattered in blood. They are the young state, the young nation: a union not without real love and good intentions — and, like the musical Fish and his company have brought to life, not without beauty and humor and hope — but, at the same time, stained by violence, complicit in all sorts of cruelties. It’s a ferocious image, and from it the company leaps into a thrilling version of the musical’s infectious title song. The extraordinary seven-piece band — led by Nathan Koci and using driving, stripped down, almost folk-rocky orchestrations by Daniel Kluger — lets loose as the characters all sing from exactly where they’re at, their crescendos and hollers reverberating with wild, troubled nuance. It’s as if the performers have been told: You don’t have to like this patriotic song, but you have to sing it, and you have to sing it loud. Some actors sing with celebration, some with blank intensity, some with irony, some with rage, some with terror. It’s a mad rush, and it feels like America.

Theater: Oklahoma!, Where Storm Clouds Loom Above the Plain