Unlike any version of Oklahoma I’ve seen is the current production at Bard College’s Performing Arts Center. Yes, the voices are beautiful, the dialogue the same, and most of the songs are familiar.
But this go round, the performance is naturalistic. No program (until the end) to distract you with any life beyond this moment. Described as “stripped down” and “unsentimental” by the director, the approach allows “Hammerstein’s blazing, diamond-cut words and Rodgers’s soaring melodies (to be) laid bare for us to discover as if for the first time.”
In Act 1, the dress is contemporary, and the songs are sung with a cowboy inflection. “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” becomes a waltz that Curly sings while strumming his guitar. He starts by sitting on the picnic table that I shared, while Aunt Eller mixes up the cornbread we’ll eat at intermission. The chili cooks in crock pots in front of us all.
The actors stay in the same space with the audience throughout the show, all as us as one. We are part of the Oklahoma Territory. When Will starts singing about KC being up to date, you might be startled when he starts to dance with the girl right by you. The dancing is only the most natural, not high falutin’ at all. At the barn, it’s square dance. No leaping over tables or show-stopping tap. No ballet in the dream sequence.
Ado Annie is a young girl in a halter top and cut-off jeans, cowboy boots, and hair in a side braid. She tries to explain herself, how she cain’t say no, a capella, her bell-like voice all wanting, before being joined quietly by the six-piece band that includes a banjo, mandolin, and accordion. She’s just a young girl, not a joke. Laurie is like her mentor.
The pace moves so fast there’s no time to applaud between songs. When Laurie and Curly warn each other with the don’t’s in “People We’ll Say We’re in Love,” the singing is so intimate and sweet, we become eaves droppers. Curly sings tenderly, right into Laurie’s ear, as if only she is supposed to hear. But we do, too.
SPOILER ALERT–don’t read past this point if you have any intention of seeing this show.
The biggest shift for me comes with poor Jud. And here, he is to be pitied. Longing to be noticed, much less loved, he has a solo I’ve not heard before, “Lonely Room,” an operatic lament sung with soft anguish.
But not before Curly bewitches him with “Pore Jud is Daid”. A kind of gay trance is created by the staging. First, they talk to each other in complete darkness, showing us what the smoke house Jud lives in is like. Slowly, as if our eyes acclimate to the dark, we begin to make out the forms of the two men, (actually clarified by projections), sitting very close together, singing the song.
Yes, Oklahoma is about two love triangles, but in this production, the attractions among Curly, Laurie, and Judd are unsettling and completely believable. With the song in the smokehouse, Jud and Curly are close enough to kiss. Laurie isn’t blatantly repelled by Jud. Her attraction to Curly seems ambivalent. Perhaps this is the actress, who plays the part very low key. But the attraction isn’t as straight forward as usually played.
Act 2 opens with just the dream portion of “Out of My Dreams.” And what a nightmare it is. The music mashes together completely discordant versions of the songs from Act 1. Laurie stands still in ghostly light. Curly and Jud both sing “I Cain’t Say No!” to her. How can anything be right for Laurie, if this is the dream that shows her what she really wants?
Periodically, the naturalistic tone is shattered by the use of a mic, which I think is a big mis-step in the production. But as that takes us out of the drama and tension building, nothing prepares us for the ending.
At the wedding party, Jud doesn’t burn down the barn, but instead comes to the newlyweds. He asks to kiss the bride, which Curly permits. Jud kisses Laurie on the lips, gently, and one of her arms embraces him. Then Jud gives Curly a gift. Curly opens the box to reveal a gun (Curly has sold his saddle, his horse, and his gun to win Laurie’s box lunch at the social).
With no words, but in my mind, the echo of “Pore Jud is Daid,” Curly takes the gun and shoots Jud. Both Curly and Laurie in wedding white get sprayed with blood. What was Jud thinking? Is this the inevitable gesture to Curly, that he allows the cowboy to fulfill the promise of their song together?
The town folks, never changing a word of the script, enact the way a community closes around an insider, Aunt Eller especially, forcing an acquittal of Curly in the moment, despite one legal authority’s objections. Jud is dead, and the girls can mourn him, as the song promises. Laurie seems stunned, as the show closes with a rousing rendition of “Oklahoma!” Ignore the ugly and sing, seems to be the message. The future is bright.
But how can Laurie have a happy marriage to a man who unambiguously murders someone she has some kind of complicated feelings for? The state may be made up of communities that protect their own, but on the micro level, this marriage has to be doomed.
Jud’s death, so easily dismissed in most productions because he is one-dimensional gross and his violence is so incongruous with the fluffy take on most of the material, here rises to the level of tragedy.
How could I feel good leaving the theater? I had just witnessed a tragedy and miscarriage of justice. I noticed many people smiling–the final song calls for a Yippee-yai-eh. But the theater doesn’t permit children to attend the show. Its intent is clearly to disturb our comfort with the traditional rendition of Oklahoma. I’ll certainly never think of this show quite the same way again.