Nature Theatre Of Oklahoma, At The Walker Art Center

The Women of "Life and Times:  Episode One"

The Women of “Life and Times: Episode One”

Alternately exhilarating and tedious, Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s “Life and Times:  Episode One” is, without a doubt, a one-of-a-kind experience.

“Life and Times” is a sung-thru music-theatre piece, using as its libretto 16 hours of recorded audio—company member Kristin Worrall answering the simple question “Can you tell me your life story”.

And boy, does she ever.  Starting with her earliest memories, Kristin—as sung alternately by Ilan Bachrach, Asil Bulbul, Gabel Eiben, Anne Gridley, Matthew Korahis & Julie Lamendola—takes us on a hodge-podge, impressionistic memory journey through the first three years of her life, moving from infancy to third grade in a fairly typical East Coast Middle Class environment.

It begins on Peter Negrini’s simple set, a raised white stage with black bunting, centered on the playing space of The Walker’s McGuire Theater.  A white scrim, equally centered, rises from the back of the raised stage and up to the grid.  The scrim will change color, at first quite literally (someone sings “yellow” and it flashes yellow)—later on it becomes more reflective of the narrator’s emotional state.

The terrific musicians, Daniel Gower, Robert M. Johanson, and Kristin Worrall herself enter without fanfare, take their places and begin playing the pleasant pop score by Mr Johanson (which I assume is intentionally unremarkable).

One of the female performers starts the show, with a long, sung-thru solo (I don’t know which performer—the program doesn’t break it down that way).  Though she’s shortly joined by the two other women, and eventually the three men, our first singer does stick in the mind somehow, as the “real” main character.  The singers wear bland, almost Soviet-looking costumes, as they pass between them Kristin’s narrative of the first three or four years of her life.

That’s the show.  The whole show.  The six-member cast is as strong and enjoyable to watch as the musicians—together they create an ensemble of great skill and theatrical flair.

But that’s the show.  For three and a half hours.

Intellectually, I understand the idea behind the length, and there is, as I said earlier, something exhilarating about the form, which includes the length.  But in the actual event, it’s a trickier proposition.  Is the three and a half hours really worth what amounts to an intellectual realization.  We are worn out not from a journey, nor from laughing too much (though the evening is often funny)—nor, as can happen with Robert Wilson or (and with) Phillip Glass, are we pushed by repetition into a trance-like state.  No, after a while, it’s just the same thing over and over.  Part of the point, to be sure, but does that Idea work on its feet?  Or does it remain an idea?

There are breaks in the singing—which I hesitate to call “dance” lest my dancer friends crush me with their amazing thighs—but stylized movement that both comments on the libretto and gives us brief respites from it.  The singers also take literal breaks, stopping the action so they can walk listlessly to the stage left corner for a drink of water.  These two aspects of the show were the most familiar, almost tropes at this point, and detract from the show’s uniqueness, which is its most attractive feature.

Which brings me to the subtitles.  A hanging screen on either side of the action (the set is remarkably symmetrical), displays every sung word for our enjoyment, white letters on a black background, every “um”, ellipsis, and “like” duly notated.  Since we can easily understand the singers, the show’s director/creators Pavol Liska and Kelly Cooper obviously want us to be examining the language as it spills forth.

This raises another interesting question.  The movement, set, costumes—even, to an extent, the music—are extremely stylized and ironic.  But the language is presented to us verbatim (there’s a small caveat in that Ms Worrall is a company member, and so really can’t be considered an innocent in this process).  For any playwright or theatre-goer of the last couple of decades, the idea that American speech is peppered with “like”, “uhh”, “um” and numerous other stalls and repetitions is not exactly news.  Is there some compelling reason for the text to be “real” while the remaining elements of the production are so theatrical?  Does this “reality” reveal some deeper layer of childhood and memory than a more skilled and deliberate approach to the text could attain?

At one point our main character sings about a friend’s mother, who has a vanity out of “a 1940’s movie” complete with all the old-fashioned tools of femininity.  I immediately flashed:  “my mother had a vanity just like that”.  My relationship with my Mother is certainly fraught with both comedy and tragedy, but the mere mention of her vanity did nothing to evoke those deeper emotions, just as the intricate details of the typical middle class childhood in question rarely scratch the surface any more deeply, than, say, “Freaks and Geeks” or “My So-Called Life”.

Ultimately, your relationship to the show’s length and its use of verbatim text will determine your ultimate enjoyment level, regardless of the considerable theatrical talent displayed on stage.  The concept is all.

The creators intend to keep this project going, to document our main character’s average American life up to the present day.  And there’s no question it will be an amazing document, an amazing achievement, when it’s finally complete.

However long that takes.

How Was the Show for You?

Your email address will not be published.