Oh What a Beautiful Morning! feels like the most sophisticated Powerpoint presentation the world has ever known, but it still feels like a Powerpoint presentation.
My point is that it’s illustrative. Created and presented by Fight With a Stick, Oh What a Beautiful Morning! is a theatrical deconstruction of the 1955 movie version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!
From what I remember of director Alex Lazaridis Ferguson’s notes, which are posted on the lobby wall, the idea is to examine some of the less obvious elements that contribute to our experience of the film—the gestural language, the settler assumptions about space, and so on. So Oh What a Beautiful Morning! tosses out the narrative and zooms in on these details.
The most visceral element in this production is the dialogue it sets up between expansiveness and containment. In the Russian Hall, the small audience sits facing a transparent screen. The whole auditorium is visible on the other side. Then the show starts and—boom!—a video of waving corn is projected on that screen obliterating the view behind it, so, all of a sudden, our visual field is just a few feet deep.
In other sequences, the space opens up so that we can see images on a second screen that’s further away in the hall. And, throughout, performers shift elegantly simple panels around, creating corridors, folding other performers into corners, and so on.
This manipulation of space looks cool and it evokes thoughts of prairie vastness, the settler fallacy of empty land, and the effects of European occupation—deftly referenced in an image of an open field that is populated, through animation, by a farmhouse, barn, fences, etc.
Formally, by far the most seductive sequence for me is about hand gestures. It involves a combination of film and live action. Two bodies are divided into two parts. From about the waist up, we see the characters Laurey and Curly, the romantic leads from the movie. And, from about the waist down, we see the bodies of performers Hin Hilary Leung and Hayley Gawthrop. The tops of the characters’ arms are from the movie and the bottoms are live. Our focus goes to the live commentary, of course, and that commentary is about masculine and feminine posturing. Our experience of Laurey and Curly is being mediated by performers of different racial backgrounds who are both female and those dislocations heighten our awareness further.
For me, the most emotionally resonant passages were about frustration. In looped sequences, we see Laurey and Curly struggling—perhaps with sexual or romantic frustration, and perhaps with the gender roles that confine them.
But here’s the thing: nothing in these passages—and, for me, they are the prime passages—provoked a significant experience or thought in me that wasn’t already very familiar. Oh What a Beautiful Morning! didn’t expand my frame of reference, or even loosen the frames that are already in place.
And, for big whacks of Oh What a Beautiful Morning!, I was bored. The piece opens with that long, long video sequence of corn. I quickly ran out of all my thoughts and associations, grew bored, was temporarily interested in my boredom, and eventually even tired of that. Other passages, including an animated sequence in which settler artifacts—ancestral portraits, coal oil lamps—get blown across the prairie in a rainstorm, barely piqued my interest to begin with.
I think a large part of my problem with Oh What a Beautiful Morning! is that, conceptually, it boxes itself in. Because it gets trapped in an analytical response to the artistic vocabulary of the musical, it never expands beyond the level of a pretty obvious thesis. I longed for the richness and freedom of a more abstract and intuitive approach.
Formally, Oh What a Beautiful Morning! is impressive. And God knows it’s ambitious. But it never possessed me, if you know what I mean. It ran out of depth.
OH WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNING! Created collaboratively by Alex Lazaridis Ferguson (direction), Steven Hill (dramaturg), Josh Hite (video creation), James Maxwell (composer), Paula Viitanen (technical direction), Hayley Gawthorp (performer), Hin Hilary Leung (performer), Claire Carolan (light design), Diego Romero (movement consultant), Delia Brett (movement consultant), and Rita Wei (stage management).A Fight with a Stick production at the Russian Hall on Friday, July 20. Continues until July 26.
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