Review: Hippie struggle in ‘Hair’ strikingly pertinent today

Friday, March 10, 2006

Imagine an impassioned protester shouting that war is “white people sending black people to fight yellow people to defend the land they stole from red people.” And then picture a protest sign that reads, “Who would Jesus bomb?”

No, these are not vignettes from an anti-war rally on campus, but they are scenes from the engaging revival of the musical “Hair,” directed by Christopher Bayes, clinical professor of theatre, speech and dance. The show opened before an appreciative audience last night in Stuart Theater.

Bayes wisely does not let political messages overshadow the visceral excitement of the play, written by Jerome Ragni and James Rado. Above all, the production is an affectionate love song for the late 1960s. It is a psychedelic musical that exuberantly explores issues of race, war, love and violence through the on-stage revelry of an excellent ensemble cast.

Each of the cast members plays a role that exemplifies different character types of the period. There is the über-hippie Berger (Ethan Philbrick ’08), the student-activist Sheila (Nora Blackall ’07), the African-American Hud (Gil Davis ’06), the hippie-chick Crissy (Zoe Chao ’08) and the pregnant Jeanie (Farra Ungar ’06). Daniel Sobol ’09 is particularly humorous in his portrayal of the ambiguously gay, Mick Jagger-loving character Woof.

Given the strong presence of these archetypes, it is surprising Bayes rejects the notion that “Hair” is a period piece. “‘Hair’ is an amazing opportunity to remind the Brown community that there are important things and valuable things to be defended,” he said.

Though the original play featured provocative nudity, Bayes has chosen to keep his actors clad. He did so, he said, because he did not want nudity to detract from the twin themes of peace and freedom that unify the otherwise-scant plot structure.

What little dramatic structure the play does have focuses on the conflicted Claude (Steven Levenson ’06), who must choose between the military (for which he has been drafted) and his hippie friends who want him to remain a member of their vagabond tribe.

Levenson, Davis and Blackall give particularly compelling performances of the musical score originally composed by Galt MacDermott.

The graphic designer Brian Gaston and costume designers Annabel Topham ’06 and Theodora Greece ’06 do an excellent job of imaginatively capturing the late-1960s social milieu of the play.

Even as it suggests people are capable of great evil and sublime love, the play probes what drives people to reject love in favor of war.

The answer lies in the tension between the past and the present. In its allusion to Hamlet, “Hair” suggests humanity is haunted by the ghosts of its past. Though the characters claim it is “1968, not 1948,” an audience today can assert that “it is 2006, not 1968.” So, the issues of rebellion that the play raises intriguingly inhere in the present.

Cynics might wonder whether the now 38-year-old play is as dated as love beads on a middle-aged lawyer. However, just as the 1960s had the war in Vietnam, this generation has the war in Iraq. And as drugs, sex and race were legitimate matters of concern then, they remain so today.

The relationship between present and past discloses a delicious irony. In a figurative sense, the parents against whom today’s Brown students rebel are the revolutionaries of the play, since “Hair” focuses on the hippie generation. So, one naturally wonders who is rebelling against whom.

In its unwitting satire of rebellious youth, the production demonstrates the fascinating power of American pop culture to transform the revolutionary into the pedestrian. What was radical in 1968 is commonplace now.

Bayes wants his production of Hair to inspire hope in its audience. “We feel powerless and hopeless,” he said, but “we still have the power to make our voices heard.”

Though that hope is filled with more than its fair share of irony and contradiction, Bayes, no doubt, has made his creative voice heard. And this results in an enjoyable production – one that captivates with the infectious pleasure of its musical theatricality.

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