Review: “This Land: Woody Guthrie” by Woody Guthrie. Conceived, adapted and directed by Greg Carter. Musical Direction by Edd Key. Produced by Strawberry Theatre Workshop. With Rob Burgess, Sheila J. Daniels, Edd Key, Don Daryl Rivera, Bhama Roget. Now through October 6, 2012 at the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway.
“This Land: Woody Guthrie” is Strawshop’s remount of their apparently very popular inaugural production back in 2004. It’s obviously a work very dear to Strawshop founder Greg Carter’s heart…he created the piece twenty years ago at Minneapolis’s In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, adapting the music and writings of folk music legend/activist Woody Guthrie into a two plus hour long tribute to the very left leaning and labor loving provocateur that famously uses puppets as some of the principle characters of the piece. It’s a very American show with some tough looks at patriotism, capitalism, and the plight of the common man featuring the work of a fascinating artist and an unique approach to the material. It’s intentions are good and noble.
Sadly, “This Land” is also more than a bit preachy and a ponderous, melancholy slog through the depths of early/mid 20th Century history with a running time that FEELS like four hours. The work more closely resembles a historical pageant than a cohesive piece of theater and it’s confusing, bounce around in time format and lack of interesting, believable characters prevents the audience from being invested in the proceedings. Everything and everyone in “This Land” is a sepia toned cut-out from a socialist pamphlet. Actors and the characters they play share the stage with puppets, but all of them seem hollow and just a bit dull and lifeless.
And, the choice of Mr. Guthrie’s songs definitely leans towards the dreary side, most of them about death and despair and the dismal fate of the working man. There are a couple more up tempo numbers in the show and the cast encourages hand clapping and joyful glee from the audience, but it’s a bit difficult to feel enlightened and happy and in a clap happy mood after enduring 50 minutes of mangled miners and horrific racism involving the beating and blinding of a black war veteran. It’s tough to turn on the joy after multiple numbers involving funerals for depressed puppets. And, none of the actors and musicians performing the songs, seem very passionate about singing them; the performances veer toward the dry and monotonous. Only Don Daryl Rivera’s fine, clear voice manages to invest any zip and charisma into the songs.
And, to be frank, I don’t really understand WHY there are puppets in this play…they don’t seem to serve any purpose other than to be clunky and vaguely creepy. Are they supposed to be a metaphor for the common man? If they are, then what is the purpose of the characters played by real people? It also doesn’t help that the puppets themselves resemble those creepy carved apple head dolls that were a popular folk craft project 50 years ago…they aren’t particularly sympathetic looking, just grotesque. Frankly, a Muppetesque performer or two, a more linear through line for the material and maybe more attention actually paid to the fascinating life of Woody Guthrie himself, and including more upbeat and passionate songs from the Guthrie catelogue would help things immensely. Maybe the work would cease feeling like a historical pageant at the State Fair, and more like an interesting, complex and entertaining night of theater.
I did enjoy some of the performances, especially Mr. Rivera as mentioned above and Sheila Daniels as a bitter Depression era woman and Bhama Roget who managed to add some zing and sass in her number. Ron Erickson’s period appropriate clothes were finely detailed and Reed Nakayama’s projections were frequently witty and very up to date, including a funny reference to actor Clint Eastwood’s disastrous “chair speech” at the recent Republican National Convention. But, Jessica Trundy’s lighting design was minimalistic and odd; frequently actors performed in near darkness. I don’t know if that was an artistic choice, or just an issue with the lighting system, but it only confounded when it should have enlightened…
So, it’s a thumbs down on “This Land: Woody Guthrie” which makes me feel vaguely guilty. As a big ol’ liberal, pro-labor lefty who enjoys the study of that period of American history, not to mention a huge supporter of Strawshop, I feel bad because I didn’t enjoy this production. (I also happen to like Woody Guthrie and I’m a huge supporter of puppet theater.) But, I’m also a huge believer that theater shouldn’t taste like cough syrup. Theater can and should be educational and informative but it really helps if it tastes good as it goes down your throat.