We Rediscover Sensation

Hair strikes a chord as missiles strike foreign targets.

| October 09, 2001
Cast members from Playhouses production of Hair.
Cast members from Playhouses production of Hair.
Poor Jay Rapp. Memphis' premier choreographer has been saddled with a riddle that makes the Sphinx's queries seem like so much kid stuff. One almost has to be a philosopher -- an ethicist with some real grasp on the identity crisis facing American consumers -- to stage Hair in this day and age. How can a person do his or her own thing while fitting in with the group? How can we be totally free and still be a functioning part of the tribe? While these aren't, by any means, new questions, they've become infinitely more confusing with time and the steady march of technology.

When Hair exploded onto the scene in 1968, there was a full-fledged social revolution under way. The united youth culture, preaching freedom of self-expression, set out to find harmony but quickly bogged down in hegemony as they embraced fashions and philosophies that were the equal and opposite of their parents'. The only slightly tongue-in-cheek watch cry "Never trust anyone over 30" is but one of the many indicators that the peace-loving, truth-seeking flower children of the '60s were in many ways as mono-minded as their patriarchs. Since that time, baby boomers have grown quite comfortable by commodifying their patented ideas of rebellion, and so the question emerges: How can we be rebellious today when all the tropes of rebellion from James Dean's red jacket to the gangsta's full grill have been unilaterally seized by corporate America and the culture of entertainment and sold back to us at inflated prices? In short, buying into the traditional trappings of rebellion is the same as selling out. Nowhere does this difficult concept manifest itself more physically than in the art of dance. Too much individuality becomes chaos. Yet requiring that all dancers ultimately yield to some strict return to form is, at root, antithetical to freedom in its purest sense.

So how does Rapp handle this conundrum? Masterfully, of course. Between Rapp's regimented free-for-alls and Dave Landis' virtually gimmick- free direction, Playhouse on the Square's potentially ill-timed production of Hair has been transformed into a heartbreaker of staggering proportions.

In the wake of falling missiles in Afghanistan Hair's meaning changes. But that's only one of many current events that alters our outlook. Hair is no longer a reminder of how '60s youth culture changed the world. It's a tearjerker reminding us how innocent and foolish we were at a time when rebellion required embracing every taboo under creation. Psychedelic mind expansion using pot, mushrooms, and L.S.D. gave way to a culture addicted to harder stuff. Will there -- can there -- ever come a time when we get misty-eyed over crack? The moist, unimaginably sweet "love the one you're with" attitude, which claimed that universal lovemaking was the one surefire road to global peace, is truly upsetting in the wake of AIDS. From the moment the lights go down at Playhouse on the Square and the opening strains of "Aquarius" begin, it's clear we are about to witness a tragedy. When Claude, the hippie-turned-soldier, announces, "I am Aquarius, destined for greatness or madness," we all know the score. We've already read the last chapter. More troubling still, as reports and rumors of chemical and biological warfare continue to emerge, Hair's reminder that "the air is everywhere" takes on a truly ominous tone.

Kyle Barnette is less than satisfying as Berger, the most outrageous member of the hippie tribe. He's too much the teddy and not enough the bear, but that's a minor complaint as this consistently surprising actor continues to test the limits of his versatility. Dan Gingert's gentleness is disarming as the sexually driven (and perhaps confused) Woof, whose "anything goes anytime" attitude is by today's standards the very definition of irresponsibility. Courtney Oliver never really nails the role of Sheila (the ur-Indigo Girl who keeps her picket signs handy) except when she opens her throat to belt out numbers like the show-stopping "Easy To Be Hard." The same can be said for Nora Ottley Stillman, whose drug-addled take on ecology, "The Stone of My Tomb," is pitch-perfect. One would be hard-pressed to find a single performance in this production that stands out in any way. And what's wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. As we are constantly reminded in this time of crisis, we work best when we work together.

"We stop, look at one another short of breath, walking proudly in our winter coats, wearing smells from laboratories facing a dying nation." These are the first words of Hair's finale, "The Flesh Failures"/"Let the Sun Shine In." They are sung by Claude (Ben Hensley), who has traded in his idealism for a uniform and a gun. By the time the chorus joins him Claude has become invisible. A great stone edifice has blocked him from view. It is a replica of the Vietnam Memorial. The cast members come out in contemporary clothes and search for names while they sing. It's a potent reminder that we pay for war with the blood of our children. And here we are on the brink of disaster without the comfort of "safe" drugs or the promise of free love. Here we are without idealism. Here we are at war with only one lingering question to be answered: "Where do I go?" That's a question Hair can't answer any better now than it did 30 years ago. But at least it can show us where we've been.

Showing through November 4th.

Add a comment