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A&E: Pulling a Purdue Theater all-nighter

April 28, 2008

The sun was pretty close to shining in when the audience emerged from the midnight performance of "Hair" April 18 at Purdue University. But the nodoubt Red Bull-fueled crowd didn't seem to mind.

College students, of course, are used to keeping these sorts of hours. But even those of us accustomed to more traditional curtain times came out exhilarated. The drive-and the groggy Saturday morning-were well worth it.

So why did Purdue's student production of the 40-yearold, easily dated musical work so well?

Let's look first at how simple it would be to mess up a revival of "Hair.

For one, the show offers so many opportunities for stridency. "Peace now/Freedom now," its in-your-face protesters demand, and if one doesn't completely buy into the hippy life, it would be easy to tune out, turn off and drop out.

On the other hand, treating the characters on stage as anthropological specimens-products of another era very different from today-creates a serious risk of condescension.

Then there's the relative plotlessness of the show, which could invite fuzzy direction, sloppy design and muddy performance.

And, of course, there are lots of opportunities for bad wigs. Thankfully, the cast and crew at Purdue dodged all these by offering a production that, in short, had life. They seemed to take to heart the words of "Hair" co-creator James Rado, who sent a note to the Purdue "tribe" encouraging them to "really do the material moment to moment" and "do not act 'Hair,' let 'Hair' act you."

He went on: "...let the wild impulses arise in you naturally at all the unexpected moments and go with those rising impulses. Be wild and do not hide from the audience. Include them...."

The cast brought to the show both the spontaneity and the passion necessary to make "Hair" more than a museum piece. An uncluttered but well-designed set, crisp directing, and effective but unobtrusive lighting also helped. If this "Hair" wasn't always vocally on the money-and if the choreography occasionally felt too, well, choreographed-it made up for it with both playfulness and commitment.

Plus, there's the music. Such pulse-pounders as "Ain't Got No" and "I Got Life" have gotten even better with age (I'll take the recent Actors' Fund benefit recording-featuring Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal and many others-over the original cast album any day).

Perhaps most importantly, in the hands of Purdue's ageappropriate talent, "Hair" became more than a political tract or an act of theatrical rebellion. Instead, it was a look into a tribe of passionate young people trying to figure out how to create joy in a complicated world-powerful stuff, whether or not you agree with these kids on matters of war, love and recreational pharmaceuticals.

And, OK, so maybe there were one or two bad wigs. You can't have everything.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't it been 14 years since "Angels in America" and a quarter-century since "La Cage aux Folles"?

Heck, didn't we just make it through eight seasons of "Will and Grace?"

Yet I keep hearing about how bold it is for the Indiana Repertory Theatre to be staging playwright-in-residence James Still's "Iron Kisses."

Yes, the play concerns a gay marriage, but you don't have to have ever set foot in Theatre on the Square or the Phoenix Theatre to see how conservative of a show this is. It's unlikely to offend anyone (except those who might cover their ears when a few fbombs are tossed late in the show).

The bulk of the play focuses on the parents, anchoring us in their church-going lovability. The theatrical conceit used here is that, in the first scene, a male actor (Ryan Artzberger) plays both the mother and father of the groom. In the second scene, a female actress (Constance Macy) plays the same two characters. In the final scene, the two performers play the groom and his sister.

Does it work? It depends what you are going to the theater for. "Iron Kisses" covers so many bases that audiences will have trouble not being moved by something in it. We all have (or had) parents. Many of us have lost at least one. Many of us have children whose behavior affects who we are. We-like the playwright-realize the difficulty of connecting and disconnecting. So, yes, there are plenty of "yes, that's my life" moments to have audiences nodding with recognition.

On the other hand, recognition isn't the same as drama. By the third act, the play seems to be fishing for something to move the action forward. Complications are raised and then quickly moved past as closing time approaches. The multi-role device raises interesting issues of how parental personalities are reflected in their children. But it also distances us from seeing the whole family and how they connect.

Ultimately, the plight of the divorced daughter-trying to face her relationship prospects with two kids in tow-feels richer than that of the son. Macy makes the most of these moments and her heartbreaking self-awareness becomes more powerful than anything else in the familiar terrain around her.

There was much to enjoy at Spotlight 2008, the Indiana AIDS Fund benefit that brought an army of local performers to the Clowes Hall stage on April 21. But the dominant forces were our town's dance companies. Kenyetta Dance, Butler Ballet and Gregory Hancock's company offered strong work, and the spirited amateur tappers from the Indianapolis Civic Theatre added joyfully to the mix.

Best of all, Dance Kaleidoscope took the opportunity to restage part of the Cynthia Pratt-choreographed piece from its "French Connections" show, which proved even richer in the revisit.

Yes, it was a great fund raiser-but also raised an awareness of what audiences are missing year-round by not taking advantage of Indy's performing-arts offerings.
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