The actor Mary Testa is always surprised to look up at the end of Oklahoma! and see the audience at Broadway's Circle in the Square (booking to Sept. 1) enthusiastically clapping along with the reprise of that musical’s title song.
At this point of Daniel Fish’s reimagined Oklahoma! in which Testa plays an exceedingly spiky Aunt Eller, the show’s antagonist Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) has died, but it is the manner of his death and what it says about this community that makes cheery clapping really not the audience reaction you would expect.
If you have come for them, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs are intact and beautifully played and sung in this Oklahoma! But Fish’s critically acclaimed production is entirely not in keeping with tradition.
Jud is not a simple villain and more a repository of loneliness and disconnection, a shocking dream ballet halfway through highlights themes around race and gender, and the audience sits in the round, an uneasily complicit character in and of itself. If you’re sitting in the front row, a pair of actors’ boots may just thud down right next to you.
There is a lot of carousing, fun, and dancing amid the darker material: Ado Annie’s (the fabulous Ali Stroker) love triangle with Will Parker (James Davis) and Ali Hakim (Will Brill) includes Stroker’s hilarious showstopper, ‘I Cain't Say No.’
And there’s chili and cornbread at intermission.
Fish told The Daily Beast that he hoped the production had deepened since being mounted at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn last year. “People say I’ve subverted Oklahoma! I never set out with that intention. I prefer to see it, as I do with any play, as being in conversation with the script, with what is already there. When I read it in 2007, when I first directed it [as a student production at Bard College], I saw that there’s a violence there, a story about an outsider, and the role of the outsider that the community can create.”
Fish read the last scene, and the quick dispensation of justice (“he can’t go to jail, it’s his wedding night, let’s have a quick trial and deliver our own justice”) and realized there was another Oklahoma! there beneath the received text.
However, Fish is resistant to saying what, for him, the larger messages of this are. “I want the audience to supply those answers. I’m wary of saying anything, because I’m always surprised by what people say that the show means to them.”
The only conversations that Fish had with the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate were around the dream ballet and the contentious ending. He won’t go into detail as to what those conversations were, but the outcome was agreeable to all, “without me thinking I had made a compromise.”
Fish grew up in the New York suburbs, his parents taking him to see all kinds of theater from a young age including productions by Peter Brook and the Royal Shakespeare Company. There was a “moment” when he thought he might become a sculptor, but a career in theater directing was always his ambition.
“I couldn’t have been an actor,” Fish said laughing. “I couldn’t bear myself night after night in front of a group of strangers. I’m in awe of this company who do it for our show.”
He thinks the first production he helmed was an Our Town at college, then a Sam Shepard play; his first professional production was The Misanthrope. Next year in New York City, he will mount a production of Michael Gordon’s opera, Acquanetta, and an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, last seen in Germany.
Of his actors, Fish said he demands a lot of “courage,” which is immediately obvious watching Oklahoma! feeling as clenched as Fish intends in its tensest moments. Even when they’re not involved in the scene, the other actors stay on stage. With all the lights on in the theatre (for much of the show), we watch each other watching them watching each other. For Fish, the technique means we feel “alone and together,” a heightened version of what it is to be an audience.
Jud isn’t the simple villain, Fish said. The production highlights the community’s brutality and self-interest as much, if not more, than his menace which really seems to be a filter for painful isolation.
Vaill, who plays Jud, has been with the production since it was first produced at Bard in 2007. “In Jud’s song, ‘Lonely Room,’ I imagine him being wanted to be loved, touched, and accepted. The root of his loneliness is anguish at being unloved. He does morally questionable things, but at the root of it all he wants to be accepted and seen.”
Fish has made every member of the ensemble integral, said Vaill, and the show itself “feels like less musical, and more one long epic poem. Knowing that someone is going to die imbues every performance with, for us all, stakes and a vitality. He hopes audiences see that the reimagining “is done with utmost respect. Oklahoma! on Broadway is an institution, and to be part of that legacy is an incredible privilege and not lost on me.”
Testa told The Daily Beast that she was “trying to get to the truth” of her character, to create a backstory that makes sense of every verbal and non-verbal response Aunt Eller has. “In real life I am quite no-nonsense, so that helps with her,” Testa said laughing. Aunt Eller is the town’s moral (perhaps amoral or immoral) fulcrum, and maternal presence. Testa has never seen any version of Oklahoma!, including the famous 1955 movie starring Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones, and Rod Steiger, which has been “freeing.”
How is she different to Eller? “Well she’s racist, and I am most definitely not,” Testa said, laughing. “She’s stuck in a way of doing and seeing things, and I am not.”
It was strange, Testa said, “to see people clapping along just after someone gets shot point blank. Others look horrified. It’s a real mixed bag. It’s almost as if they don’t want to see what is happening in front of them—for me, a bit like what is going on in this country right now; the racism, separatism, and prejudice. This musical shows how we, how America, treats the outsider. It is warning about that. I really don’t hold out much hope for human beings. We don’t seem to be doing a great job of evolving.”
Rebecca Naomi Jones, who plays Laurey, told The Daily Beast that performing the show was “exacting and exhausting, and satisfying. Most of us have never had to have the kind of focus that this show demands. It was an intense, confusing audition. I wasn’t used back then to the Daniel Fish je ne sais quoi. It’s very specific but not defined by words. He knows what he wants but sometimes can’t articulate it, so you work together to whittle it down to the juice of what you’re trying to get at.”
Laurey has agency, and while her and Curly’s love story is a major part of the show still, there is an air of independence and impatience Jones’ Laurey has, a resolute refusal to be thought of anybody's possession. “As an actress of color, I’m not pretending not to be in any other skin than the one that I am in,” said Jones, which adds layers to other scenes, such as when the men bid for the women’s lunch boxes—and, by extension, to spend time with the women themselves.
Jones loves the scenes when the stage is suddenly bathed in green when Laurey and Curly share their first intimate scene, and ‘The Farmer and The Cowman’ dance sequence, which acts a great tension reliever at the start of act two.
She has heard “so many” different responses to the show: “intense,” “interesting,” “a reinvestigation of what has always been there,” and, when it comes to Jud, “a really important look at mental health.”
Jones added, “Another friend was struck by how quickly the community rallies behind the person whose life they judge as more valuable than another.”
The musical doesn’t simply have Curly as a good guy (as evidenced in his charged scene with Jud), and for Jones Jud and Laurey share a connection beyind him simply being a creepy stalker. At these key moments, Fish shrouds the stage in darkness.
With the audience in well-lit view for much of the performance, the room can feel like a community center, albeit with groups of menacing, and revealing, guns on the walls.
“The audience feels like members of the community,” said Jones. “The lights can make some people sit up and pay more attention. Some people are uncomfortable. Some get up for random stretching. Others check their phones. I really don’t understand the people who look at their programs. I mean fine, but why don’t you just watch and look at those later?”
Something that unites all the actors is the costuming; while Jud is garbed mostly in moody hoodie and jeans, the others are in plaid shirts, jeans, and (extremely sexy, for the men) chaps. Said Jones, “The second you put the boots on, you think, ‘Oh, this is happening.’”