Shows Worth Seeing:
Life and Times
By Nature Theater of Oklahoma
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St.
Box office: (212) 539-8500
Nature Theater of Oklahoma, in its latest shows, uses ordinary transcribed phone conversations as playtexts, treating them with the same respect and reverence usually reserved for deathless masterpieces. Their Romeo and Juliet a few years back was built around their friends’ halting and blundering efforts to remember the plot of Shakespeare’s play, with two actors performing all the stumbling and grasping for names and facts, “ummms,” “likes,” and misquotations as if they were the loftiest heroic poetry by Longfellow or Hugo.
Life and Times is an extension of that idea extended to a marathon length and set (in the first 2 of 4 parts) to original music. Instead of memories of Romeo and Juliet, the text this time consists of one young actress’ (Kristin Worrall’s) memories of her own life so far. Worrall was asked to recount her life story from birth to the present and did so over 16 hours of recorded phone conversations. The transcript was then used as the libretto for a sung-through operetta in which her completely mundane and often vacillating and vague speech was treated as polished musical theater lyrics, with every “um,” “huh” and groping delay accentuated in the score as if it carried the importance of a profound climactic phrase or a world-shaking insight. The actors perform all this to infectiously peppy, callisthenic-like dance routines.
The main provocation is obviously the idea that such trivial material is equally deserving of our time and respect as the words of Shakespeare and Goethe. The point is to recontextualize everyday language and behavior as art, reframing it in a way that makes it seem exhilarating, fresh and resonant rather than dull, routine and negligible. The fact that the gambit works as well as it does—for a while—is in itself astonishing.
Life and Times is indeed delightful and amusing for, say, an hour or so, as you drink in the energy of the performers and figure out the basic conceit of the piece. After that—all 4 parts together last 10 hours, and the last 2 are slow-going indeed—the mind of any intelligent person necessarily seeks something else to do. You have to decide if you will accept boredom as an invitation to fruitful reverie, as with Einstein on the Beach and other works in the environmental-theater tradition of John Cage. If you use the time to apply the material to yourself, filling in content from your own life to supplement and complicate Worrall’s rather banal memories, you can stay entertained. That will not work for everyone, however. A wise friend of mine says that all artworks count on us to “complete them,” to an extent. It’s very rare for one to count on us this much, though, and some are bound to resent it. Seeing this show should be regarded as a choice to participate in a bold and fascinatingly provocative experiment.