A few weeks ago I unearthed a box of 15-year-old letters from my parents' attic written by friends during some significant years of our lives: just out of high school and heading off to college, to new cities or overseas. For the most part, they're filled with dramatic devotionals ("You are the only person who understands me!") and a tone that is both angsty and brimming with idealism about changing the world. Painfully naïve? Um, yeah. But also, it's sort of thrilling to recapture that blinding—and blind—post-high school energy. (Not to mention, the weirdness of leafing through what now feels like such an antiquated medium for communication.)
Everything about reading those letters reminds me of watching the Alpine Theatre Project's (ATP) current production of Hair. The 1968 musical is all about the feverish contagion of young idealism. It's concerned with issues surrounding racism, sex and war, and addresses them in highly emotional and satirical ways. There is no innuendo when it comes to sex—songs like "Sodomy" don't thinly veil anything. The dialog is defiant and full of swears. And, of course, there's a lot of pot smoking and tripping on acid.
In addition to its "shocking" onstage antics, Hair stands out for being a revolutionary piece of theater. It experimented with non-linear storytelling and audience participation in a way that hadn't been done before. Other than being about a tribe of hippies, there isn't much of a clear plot—though it still manages to create a meaningful portrait of those involved. In most productions, the fourth wall is completely dissolved. The cast meanders throughout the crowd, talking to people and handing out flyers. For better or worse, the audience is not allowed to be an innocent bystander.
Granted, those elements are written into the script and don't change much from production to production. But director Betsi Morrison put some thought into how to best interpret those aspects. In ATP's version, the actors pet audience members with just enough intrusion on personal space to evoke giddy nervousness. Set designer Robin Vest built the round center of the stage at a tilt to give the illusion that the cast was just about to slide right into the front row. The backdrop, painted like a purple star-filled sky on one wall and an orange and yellow sun on the other, doesn't stop at the stage's end. The whole theater is engulfed by the set, giving the sense that there is no physical designation between actors and audience.
What makes ATP's Hair so strong is its cast. The 16-member tribe is made up of mostly professional equity actors who have made this trip, if you will, many times before. J. Cameron Barnett has performed in Hair all over the world, and his saucy portrayal as one of the lead characters, Hud, is mesmerizing, and equally matched by his incredible vocals and dance moves. Handsome and lanky Fabio Monteiro seems born to play the mischievous Berger, who loves the ladies but, still, can be so cruel. And Tracy McDowell plays Sheila with the kind of earnestness that is both cringe-worthy and totally endearing.
Hair begins with caricature and ends on more complex terms. The fun-loving hippies seem a bit unreal at first, but when the idealism begins to fall apart, the cast makes sure you see that there's more to their characters than first meets the eye. Claude (Eric Michael Krop) sings "Manchester, England" as a goofy hippie in the beginning, but as the play continues that simple identity unravels in the context of the Vietnam War. His evolution into a more layered character is probably the most gut wrenching part of this show. He's the quiet, contemplative one, the one member of the tribe you relate to most. Despite the fact that he's such a tragic figure, Krop never overplays the role.
Throughout the show, a stellar live band performs on stage beneath the shelter of a fire escape. There are times the sound system can't quite handle the loud guitar riffs coupled with the cast's more fast and furious songs, and the strain to understand what is going on gets a little tiring. But during some of the best parts—like when Margaret Mead (Luke Walrath) sings "My Conviction" and flashes the mostly elderly audience with nothing but a banana hammock, or when the cast sings the more popular songs like "Hair" and "Let the Sunshine In"—the sound is crystal clear.
ATP, thankfully, doesn't pull punches despite the fact that Whitefish is a long way from New York City. Then again, Hair's original viewers are seniors now, and it has been around for long enough that it's been embraced, despite scenes that still cause a stir. (In an ill-fated decision to look down at my program during the last few seconds of Act I, I missed the famous full-frontal nudity scene where at least a handful of cast members disrobe. And, I'll admit, I was disappointed.)
Even if some of the shock of Hair has worn off, it's a relevant play: wars and racism and homophobia haven't gone away. Another thing that's still true: People are still uncomfortable with audience participation. When I was pulled up onstage to dance at the end, I hated it. But I get it, too. We have inhibitions now that we didn't have in our youth, and Hair reminds the audience of that. Maybe one day we'll need a new, more updated shocking musical. In the meantime, ATP shows that this one still holds up.
Hair continues at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center in Whitefish, Thursday, July 15, through Sunday, July 31. Go to alpinetheatreproject.org for tickets and more info.