Hair in Central Park

So here’s the thing: Given Ben Brantley’s glowing New York Times review, Hair will no doubt move to Broadway. Although it deserves a wider audience and a much longer run (or re-run, given its original Broadway success), part of what makes the Public’s Delacorte Theatre production in Central Park wonderful is that Hair finds its natural setting outdoors. Entering the open-air house feels like stumbling on the young, energetic “Tribe” in their natural habitat.

It’s not that the designers have gone to great lengths to recreate say, Tompkins Square Park, the far East Village Ground Zero for New York’s Aquarius generation in the late 1960s. It’s that all the designers and the terrific director, Diane Paulus (recently appointed the next Artistic Director of ART, in Cambridge), have taken advantage of the freedom and the pleasure and the wonder of being young and alive under the sky, living on the streets as the characters in Hair (at least sometimes) do.

The actors enter the small, undecorated stage from the roofless house, roaming the aisles to address the audience. They’re not panhandling, but almost; they entreat us not for cash but for our opinions about their hair, their clothes, their beings. Spectators I noticed at the preview performance I saw August 5th happily went along with their interactions with the cast, turning the whole evening into something of a mutual love fest. And rightly so, since the Public’s revival is vivid and fresh, even magical.

The designers might maintain a bare bones aesthetic—perhaps inspired by the concert-style version the Public mounted in the park last summer—but the rest of the production is fully embellished with choreography and music. The energetic, geometric, and precise dance moves were devised by Karole Armitage, and Rob Fisher supervised the musical direction by Nadia Digiallonardo of a small band of horns, percussion, and electric guitars (since Hair was, as Stacy reminds me, the first rock musical) played by musicians decked out in the colorful, eclectic costumes of 1960s’ Hippies. The band congregates under a chuppah-like cloth canopy perched in the back middle of the intimate playing space.

Bare of more elaborate decor, the Delacorte stage is perfectly attuned to the musical’s simplicity. The stage floor sports a threadbare layer of Astroturf to evoke the balding grass of the Tribe’s arena, and the low fences at the back and sides of the stage became part of these Hippies’ hollow, the comfy outdoor encampment in which the characters frolic through a long night or two of the soul.

The night I attended, Hair seemed a wonderful nostalgia trip for the audience. As the band played the opening chords of “Aquarius,” and Dionne (Patina Renea Miller) wandered up to center stage to herald the approach of the new age, people across the packed audience sang along, grooving in their seats to those old lyrics and a tune that seems embedded in the collective memory of a certain generation of Americans. Even younger spectators rose to the occasion, singing along.

Who could fail to be moved by the infectious energy and commitment of the cast; by Paulus’s direction, which paces each number and exchange with fail-proof ease and speed; by uniformly excellent singers, who put their own stamp on these classic melodies without offending the audience’s recollection of their original delivery; or by dances that manage to seem both authentic to the physical and spiritual freedom of the Hippies’ historical moment and sharp and contemporary enough to speak to the movement vocabulary of today’s young folks? As “Aquarius” dawned and the song’s final chords sounded, I’d hazard to say we were all already hooked.

Hair is really a revue, a string of songs linked along the bare bones of a plot. Each number captures a feeling, an attitude that signals the emotions and passions of young people of the anti-Vietnam War, flower power, civil rights, psychedelic, free love, anti-establishment era. The characters, such as they are, depict stock figures of the moment: Berger (Will Swenson), the handsome womanizer who can’t be bothered to appreciate Sheila (Caren Lyn Manuel), his erstwhile main squeeze; Woof (Bryce Ryness), the about-to-be flamboyant on-his-way-to-being “homosexual” who’s in love with Mick Jagger; Hud (Darius Nichols), the Afro-encircled black man bursting with then-new racial pride; and Jeanie (Kacie Sheik), inadvertently pregnant by another man, but thoroughly, unrequitedly in love with Claude (Jonathan Goff, of Spring Awakening fame), the confused boy torn between fidelity to the Tribe and some misplaced sense of obedience to authority, whether incarnated by his parents or “the law” or “the country.”

For reasons that haven’t been clear in any production I’ve ever seen of Hair, Claude decides not to burn his draft card like his mates, but instead follows through with his Army induction. He cuts his down-to-there hair, goes off to war, and is promptly slaughtered, reduced from an idealistic, attractive young man to just another anonymous body sent home in a box wrapped in just another empty, wasted flag.

The draft-card-burning scene that ends Hair’s first act, staged to the reiterative melody of “Hare Krishna,” is particularly affecting in the Public’s Delacorte production, partly because the outdoor setting lets it viscerally evoke the moment. As smoke pours into the night air from a fire lit in a street-size steel garbage can, each of the cast’s men take their turn ritually dancing up to the light. They throw their cards into the flames as drums beat and trumpets blare, and the rest of the cast dances triumphantly, until Claude approaches the can and just . . . can’t . . . do it. As the ritual of refusal comes to an abrupt end, the Tribe backs away from their friend, confused. The spirit of group-think, so pleasurable a force to which to surrender, dissipates, and the group breaks apart, wandering off into the night in pairs or trios.

But as Claude sings the haunting ballad of ambivalence and bewilderment “Where Do I Go?”, the Tribe returns for the fleeting rather sacramental nudity that was part of what made the original Hair so radical for its time. Under cover of night and low stage lights, the Tribe gathers back near Claude, casting off their clothes not under the privacy of a large billowing tarp, as they did in the 1960s, but openly, and with a kind of conviction and vulnerability that both underlines and contrasts with Claude’s hesitancy. Discarding their outfits to stand naked before the audience gestures to a primal necessity underneath the radical posturing, to the possibility of feelings not sexual, but unmediated and, if you will, pure. Although nudity on stage no longer shocks (at least not in Central Park in New York City), in this production the cast’s collective disrobing played as a declaration of authentic presentness more than it did rebellion or desire.

The moment also works effectively here to question the momentum of political feeling in the 60s that sometimes devolved into lifestyle instead of a more considered, analytical program of dissent. In the Public’s production, I was struck for the first time that the Tribe isn’t first and foremost committed to activism, but rather indulges in a way of life that’s pleasurable because it’s free from the “square” expectations of the moment and unfettered by the dogma of its politics. Until it ends with the draft-card burning ritual, the first act establishes the Tribe’s preoccupation with personal relationships over the political, in songs like “Donna,” “Frank Mills,” and “Easy to be Hard.” It both lampoons and celebrates the counter-culture’s social practices in “Hashish,” “Sodomy” and “Hair,” evoking the moment but resolutely embedding it in personal, rather than political, choices.

On the other hand, Act One offers its share of social satire, critiquing the sorry state of our skies in “Air,” the impenetrability and proliferation of acronyms in “Initials,” and the rigidity of the 1950s generation in “My Conviction.” Performers Andrew Kober, who plays the drag role of Margaret Meade as well as the uptight, all-purpose “Dad,” and Megan Lawrence, who’s physically and vocally on target as the stereotypical yet familiar anxious “Mother,” parody the “establishment” with acerbic physical wit.

Although Claude is a cardboard cut-out of a character, his second act drift away from his community into the maw of the war machine is wrenching, not because the audience has necessarily identified with him or any other character, but perhaps because it’s in the last half of the evening when Hair becomes most relevant to the present and when analogies with the war in Iraq feel most palpable. This, too, is handled with a light touch consistent with the rest of the production. In the show’s finale, as the Tribe sings the final anthem, they part down the middle to reveal Claude, dressed in full military colors, lying still on the stage floor across a large American flag. Their friend’s empty sacrifice resonates with those of the many soldiers over the last five years who’ve lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, for equally suspect political reasons.

The second act more specifically resonates with the ideological commitments of the moment (then and now). “Let the Sunshine In,” as Public Theatre Artistic Director Oscar Eustis notes in the program, was never “a celebratory anthem; it was always a broken-hearted plea by a tribe that has not only failed to stop the war, but failed to keep one of their own from being consumed by it.” Taken out of context, the song became a commercialized feel-good hit, but Eustis and this production recalls its origins as a cri de coeur, a heartfelt plea for tolerance and peace.

The Public’s production doesn’t suffocate Hair under overworked contemporary references. Paulus lets the cast’s freak flags fly in the exuberance of the lyrics, the costumes, the dancing, and the invigorating night air. Hair is by now a “costume piece”—the long-flowing locks on most of the men are obviously wigs, and the fringed vests worn over their bare chests obviously evoke another era’s sartorial style. In fact, the cast’s bodies give away the persistence of the present most emphatically, in the sculpted six-pack abs of the male actors and the svelte physical lines of the women, perceptible even under their long, fluid skirts. The contrast between Hair’s premiere 40 years ago and this revival seems embodied in how much tighter, leaner, and, ironically, rather warrior-like the ideal American body has become.

Still, Hair’s “messages” are all here, along with the pleasure of nostalgia, the poignancy of being reminded how history repeats itself, and the joy of watching young people so physically, musically, and emotionally dedicated to embodying if not fully fleshed out characters, then the simple spirit of a moment now long past, yet close to the present nonetheless.

When the cast invited the audience onto the stage to dance as the band played after the curtain call, people of all ages (and colors, although unlike the Public’s very diverse staff, working at the Delacorte as security and ushers, the audience for Hair was predominantly white the night I attended) bound down to join them. The dancing was a utopic, performative slice of “now” inspired by an evening’s performance that knit audience and cast together in communal fellow-feeling and hope.

I can imagine some readers or spectators disparaging this production as empty nostalgia or easy sentiment, unattached to actions that might actually change or critically note how bereft are the politics of war and imperialism. But I left the theatre buoyed not just by the electricity of memory, or by hearing the enduring if sometimes silly lyrics, but by the production’s full-hearted devotion to the present, to making these songs and the representation of an inclusive, open-handed spirit of belonging and rebellion mean something in a time when we don’t readily value ideas or movements or even just moments that bring us together so unashamedly.

In their program bios, each cast member ends his or her paragraph with “Love.” Just the word, period. Corny, but also sweet, and evidence, perhaps, of how much this cast’s generation came to appreciate and even share the sentiments first embodied in Hair by the last.

Good morning starshine indeed,

The Feminist Spectator

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4 thoughts on “Hair in Central Park

  1. Isn’t this production just the show we need to create the first Broadway theater with a retractable roof? lol. It’s working for sports; why not theater? Didn’t the New Amsterdam used to have a rooftop theater?

  2. I totally agree it works because of the space, and the resonance of it being the first non-Shakespeare piece the Public did. I really loved it, and was moved at the end, precisely because of the space and the tribe singing let the Sunshine in from the voms and under the stage. In the park, it was magical, and it’s too bad it just can’t run there.

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