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Ah, summer: the birds are chirping in the trees, the bees are busying from flower to flower, and the youth of America are conspiring against the system. Meanwhile, if you flip through your television channels, between replays of Splendor in the Grass is footage of violence and police brutality, testing the freedoms given to us by our Founding Fathers. This description of the summer of 2016 all too well fits the summer of 1968, a striking similarity augmented in Theatre in the Park's riveting and emotionally charged production of Hair.
We are living in turbulent times in America, as it was 48 years ago when Hair first premiered. Much like the younger generation of today, the kids of the "Tribe" are doing just fine without "the Man" controlling them.
Sure, many of them could probably use some good, ol' American disciplinary action: send them into the draft, that'll teach them, right? The reality is, in 1968, the members of the Tribe did not feel any support or tolerance from the Man or any elders. Those in charge who may have thought they were helping the cause were only hurting it. Otherwise, why would this band of misfits stay with one another?
Where other productions of Hair I've seen (six in the past two years, to be exact) have gotten frizzy and tangled up was in thinking that the play's message is about loving one another. True, the hippie characters do feel that -- "Let the Sunshine In" is the epitome of that message -- but where director Ira David Wood III's production is superior to recent Triangle ones is in highlighting the immediacy of the events that are affecting these kids. While trimming away some shorter songs that take away from the plot, Wood has grounded the show's relevant themes in his actors' own youth, giving the Tribe less a feeling of a warm nuclear family and more of a ritualistic group. It's as though the kids are slowly becoming the democracy they fought so hard against.
Hair is a floor show of sorts, the youth present us with an introduction to the "types" that inhabit the Tribe before presenting a parodic history of America -- think Hamilton but a bit more offensive. Between these set pieces, we follow Claude's (Christopher Maxwell) internal struggle with going into the draft or staying with the tribe. Maxwell's Claude was more passive and softer than other interpretations I've seen, giving all of his actions deeper resonance. Billy Hoffman as Berger, the leader of the Tribe, maneuvered the character's emotional minefield well, switching between people-pleaser to individual consoler without making Berger feel manipulative. There were many oddly touching moments such as Casey Cleland's heartbreaking "Frank Mills," Brandon Fillette's Margaret Mead character, and Juanita Velazquez's Abraham Lincoln cameo a la Diana Ross. Cast members Jackie O'Shaughnessy, Thomas Porter, and Jarrett Bennet gave notable appearances in their respective roles, and the entire cast shined for their mature acting chops and powerful singing, thanks to musical director Diane Petteway and her all-star band. How daring, too, that nearly half the cast participated in the infamous nude scene, which was tastefully executed thanks to Thomas Mauney's lighting and scenic choices.
In light of recent tragic events, Hair seems even more daring now than in 1968. The cast and crew over at Theatre in the Park make a convincing case that history has repeated itself. At least love can still prevail. We hope.
Hair continues through Sunday, July 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.