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Without a Prayer

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By Albert Williams

"I am Aquarius--destined for greatness or madness," proclaims Claude, the hippie hero of the "American tribal love-rock musical" Hair. With a new Age of Aquarius imminent--and, according to some astrologers, likely to bring earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, and a shake-up in the stock market--the time seems ripe for a revival of this late-60s landmark, whose portrait of young outcasts fumbling to invent a new way of life communicates a universal idealism. And the Boxer Rebellion ensemble, working in a small storefront a block west of Loyola University, clearly care deeply about this audacious, often raunchy yet fundamentally noble work, seeing it as an opportunity to remind their own far more cynical generation that there was once nothing funny about peace, love, and understanding.

But laudable as this goal is, Boxer Rebellion's Hair falls far short of greatness, in large part because it lacks madness, whether raging and tormented or ecstatic and Dionysian. The desperate urgency that drove a sizable chunk of young people to drop out of a violent, racist, sexually repressive system consumed with prosecuting an immoral and idiotic war is replaced by a giddy party atmosphere that unintentionally insults the very counterculture the material celebrates.

Also lacking is a sense of spirituality and passion--fatally so in a work that reenacts the Passion of Jesus through the sacrificial figure of Claude. While Hair doesn't wear its faith on its sleeve in the manner of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar (both of which it strongly influenced), it's every bit as religious. Gerome Ragni, James Rado, and Galt MacDermot's script and score are steeped in Catholic symbols, some of which are obvious. One of Claude's disciples, Woof, refers to "the blood and body of Christ"; another, Berger, searches for a 16-year-old virgin named Donna and proclaims that he wears his hair "like Jesus wore it." Even Frank Mills, the never-seen biker about whom the sweet but flaky Chrissy plaintively sings, is tattooed with the names "Mary and Mom and Hell's Angels." Other religious allusions are more subtle, among them the fact that many of the sung and spoken texts are structured as prayers, sermons, or litanies. (When Hair premiered, Leonard Bernstein complained that the lyrics were like laundry lists, missing entirely the fact that songs like "I Got Life," "Ain't Got No," and the title tune were ritualistic recitations of attributes the characters either had or wanted--a very odd lack of insight coming from the composer of Mass.)

Hair's simple story concerns a hippie "tribe" whose leader, Claude, has just received his draft notice. His friends--including Berger and Sheila, Peter and Mary Magdalene to Claude's Jesus--want him to burn his draft card and resist induction. But like Christ choosing crucifixion rather than rebellion, Claude embraces his fate, seeking to discover "why I live and die" and finding the answer in a soldier's martyrdom. Instead of a shroud, Claude ends up covered by an American flag, a symbol of all the young lives wasted in that wretched conflict and a lamb sacrificed to "the flesh failures," as the show's penultimate song puts it before segueing into a yearning, minor-key prayer to "Let the sunshine in."

Director Scott Olson has barely scratched the surface of this complex, much misunderstood work. His program notes invite the audience to "rock on with the groovy revolution," and for the most part his staging is as shallow as his sloganeering. Lacking a visceral understanding of the "psychedelic stone age," as one character calls it, Olson and his cast fail to establish the universality that should come out of the specifics of Hair's characters' lifestyles.

Not that Olson hasn't tried to immerse his production in a 60s atmosphere. Before the show and during intermission the theater is filled with music by the Beatles, the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, and Jefferson Airplane. (Sound "editor" Dan Sears has even selected "Reach out of the Darkness," the 1968 top-40 hit that earned Chicago folkie Jim Post a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) The show begins promisingly, with the actors entering through the audience, playfully interacting with us just as hippies used to do with the tourists gawking at them. Also promising is the stage itself, a black box painted sky blue and adorned only with a zodiac circle on the floor. Olson, set designer Bob Kiser, and lighting designer Jeff McCrum have bravely chosen to use the space's small size rather than try to disguise it, dispensing with the bloated, high-tech slickness that's marred many commercial productions (in the 20th-anniversary revival at the Vic Theatre by Oak Brook socialite Michael Butler--the show's original Broadway producer--"Walking in Space" was sung by actors "flying" Peter Pan-style). In this low-budget, bare-bones version, the action is played close to and sometimes in the audience under almost constantly bright light, giving new meaning to the phrase "in your face"--particularly in the nude scene that climaxes act one. Usually the entire cast strips down to join in a naked "be-in," but here Olson has the company disrobe Claude--one of the few times he conveys the work's sense of ritual.

Yet even this scene lacks mystery and magic. The nude scene should be played in shadow--not to preserve the actors' modesty but to heighten the sequence's sense of holiness and awe. Indeed, while this production is filled with touchy-feely playfulness, it's lacking in sensuality or rebelliousness, crucial aspects of the hippie mystique of transcendence through drugs and free love.

The most disappointing sequence is the drug-induced hallucination Claude has on the eve of his induction, a horrific parade of figures from America's violent history, ranging from slaughtered Native Americans and the assassinated Abe Lincoln to Buddhist monks immolating themselves in protest of the Vietnam carnage. This pageant of atrocities should be played as a savage political cartoon, but here it's just a jokey Halloween skit. (The show slips up in trivial specifics as well. "I got my job through the Reader," a character ad-libs at one point. Sorry, this paper didn't start publishing until 1971.)

Performing without microphones, the actors sometimes sing to taped rock and roll; in a nice touch, they also make their own music at times, playing acoustic guitar and bongos. The singing in general has an exuberant energy that works well in some songs: "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" bursts with rousing gospel fervor, and the Supremes spoof "White Boys," an ode to the sexual prowess of pink-faced "pickadillies," is a delight as sung by two black women and a lissome, long-haired gay guy; he also duets with Chrissy on "Frank Mills," turning this solo into a duet that sounds like Peter and Mary without Paul. But under Chris Staton's musical direction the singers turn the dreamily delicate anthem "Walking in Space" into a boisterous hootenanny sing-along, and Olson and Staton turn the show's most beautiful song--"What a Piece of Work Is Man," a pristine setting of a speech from Hamlet--into a spoken monologue, robbing the evening of one of its most poetic moments.

Olson has done a good job of coaxing committed, spontaneous performances from the ensemble, and most of the performances range from adequate to excellent. The strongest work comes from Julie Hurt, who lives up to her last name in her rendition of Sheila's bitter ballad "Easy to Be Hard"; Lauren Wolf, dynamic as she leads the cast in the opening number, "Aquarius," and quite funny as a middle-class mom describing her patriotic convictions; Laura Jean Francis as Chrissy; and Erline Dorcy, Cheridan Westmoreland, and Bobby Hanson as the "White Boys" trio. (I should note that Dorcy and Hanson are students in the musical-theater program in which I teach at Columbia College.) Matt Brown as Claude is competent if uncharismatic, as are Jennifer Willison as Jeannie and Alex Everett as Hud, the African-American who issues stern reminders that war is "white people sending black people to fight yellow people to defend the land they stole from the red people."

But two crucial performances seem misguided. As the self-absorbed, promiscuous Berger--whose mistreatment of Sheila embodies the misogyny that permeated the male-dominated hippie subculture despite its supposed sexual egalitarianism--Richard Similio is just plain awful: his hippy-dippy caricature recalls Dick Shawn warbling about "Love Power" in Mel Brooks's The Producers. Almost as perplexing is Blaise Azzara as Woof. A conflicted Catholic closet queen who hides his gayness behind an "acceptable" infatuation with ambisexual Mick Jagger, Woof is the gentle, naive youth who sings "Sodomy," a lilting ode to sexual practices that declares "masturbation can be fun." The point of the song isn't that masturbation is fun but that masturbation is the only action Woof can get: all the girls in the tribe reject him because they sense that his longing barely conceals a need they can't fulfill. Azzara hides Woof's homosexuality behind a coarse macho facade, tagging behind Berger like a sexual scavenger hoping to enjoy some of this womanizer's leftovers. I understand Olson and Azzara's reasoning--certainly more than a few blatant latents have tried to cloak their gay guilt in blustery het bravado--but it makes Woof, the work's most charming character, completely unappealing.

Even the best cast members, however, lack any visceral understanding of the material or the era it represents. Granted, most of the company wasn't born when Hair opened on Broadway in 1968, a year after its off-Broadway premiere in 1967 as the first production at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre. But neither was the cast of the Pacific Musical Theatre production that Michael Butler imported to the Athenaeum in 1996 to coincide with the Democratic convention. That ensemble was unpolished to be sure. But directors Dan Kern and Lara Teeter (now artistic director of Light Opera Works) conveyed the work's gravity and depth as well as its rambunctious humor and trippy magic. One believed as well as one could in this day and age that this was the real thing because the performers and directors connected with the show's 60s setting as well as its universal underpinnings.

There's precious little of that connection in Boxer Rebellion's earnest but often misguided production. People who've never seen Hair before may be taken in by the long wigs and period costumes, and they may respond to the remarkable beauty of this raw, haunting material even in a flawed presentation. But for a veteran observer of the work and the era it represents, this cast comes off like a bunch of what we used to call weekend hippies.

George S. Buse, who died last week at the age of 74, was well-known around town as a gay activist and journalist; a writer for the old GayLife newspaper as well as Windy City Times and the Chicago Free Press, he was confined to a wheelchair in his last years but remained active with such groups as the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Veterans of America and the Chicago Anti-Bashing Network.

What many of Buse's younger friends didn't know was that he had also been an actor. In the mid-60s, when off-Loop theater was just beginning to take shape under such directors as Bob Sickinger and June Pyskacek, Buse was a member of the highly regarded Old Town Players, and in the early 70s he appeared in such productions as The Influence Show, which Pyskacek directed at the old Body Politic Theatre (now home of Victory Gardens). A couple of seasons ago he returned to the stage, in his wheelchair, in Bailiwick Repertory's production of Vanguards: 8 Stories of Life Before Liberation, David Biele's docudrama based on accounts of pre-Stonewall life by eight gay Chicagoans, including Buse. And he was featured as a character in the mid-80s in "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II, Prologue Theatre Productions' musical version of Studs Terkel's book--he was Ted Allenby, the sailor purged from the navy for being gay. Terkel tracked Buse down by calling GayLife in search of a gay interviewee; Buse let Terkel interview him only if he could interview Terkel for the paper in return.

Coincidentally, Prologue is performing "The Good War" May 4 through 7 at the Chicago Historical Society; see the theater listings in Section Two for more information. The production will serve as a fitting tribute to a man who moved between gay activism and the arts with unswerving commitment and considerable skill. A memorial service for Buse will take place May 18 at Ann Sather restaurant, 929 W. Belmont; for details call 773-878-4781.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nina Luhar.

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