From the Summer of Love to the Summer of Trump: Peregrine Theatre’s Production of Hair is Timeless
Unlike several other recent revivals, the Peregrine Theatre Ensemble’s production of Hair doesn’t open the show by ostentatiously underlining similarities between the two eras—Peregrine’s far too smart and far too subtle for that. Instead, we’re offered the opportunity to see the ‘60s—confused, hopeful, cynical, drugged, and ultimately innocent—and draw our own conclusions as to a reciprocal call to action for 2018.
Much of what Hair grappled with was new to that generation—shifting gender roles, fluidity around sexual identity and preferences, racial awareness in the wake of the Loving decision—and yet much of it is still unlearned lessons today. Did they really believe that love was all it took to stop a war, to find nirvana, to escape parental strictures and to live high? Looking at this tribe’s young hopeful faces, it’s hard to not think they did—and do.
The tribe is led by Berger (Jeffrey Kelly) and Claude Bukowski (Kevin Lagasse), and spends much of the first act rebelling: they reject their own pasts and make up something more interesting; they embrace the Age of Aquarius, in which all things will be put right; they make fun of history and patriotism; they pursue what today we’d call environmentalism; they let their hair down in every way imaginable and struggle with the demands of conventional parents and school officials.
There are crises that threaten the tribe’s cohesiveness; in particular, Sheila (Daisy Layman) compares Berger’s declared concern for social justice in the abstract to his poor treatment of people in the particular. But as the first act ends, the major crisis is about human sacrifice, both in the plural and in the personal: like other young men, Claude has received his draft notice but is ultimately unable to burn it as the rest have done and wonders instead “Where Do I Go.” Christopher Heilman’s scenic design combines poignantly with Gifford Williams’ lighting for an emotional visual drumroll of the names of Vietnam’s American dead.
From then on, the seriousness of the situation—despite the dreamy “trip” sequence—accelerates, and even as one knows what to expect, the second act leaves audiences emotionally drained; the scene in particular of a Buddhist monk (Alexander Tan) set afire in protest is sickeningly real. The show ends musically on a celebratory note, though one is left wondering exactly what one is celebrating. This is where Peregrine’s genius comes in: it is at the end, and not at the beginning, that we’re reminded how far we haven’t come. Our #MeToo consciousness might make us smugly aware of the impossibility of a song like “Donna” being written in 2018, but the final images—that include women in hijab and the plaintive urging to “Wake Up, America”—ensure we don’t forget this is a fight that hasn’t yet been won.
I seriously could call out every single actor on stage: Peregrine is, as always, pitch-perfect. Every actor has a distinct personality even within the ensemble, and when they dance together they seem to draw strength both from each other and from being part of the tribe—Kyle Pleasant’s choreography allows for individuality within a single flowing organism. And they’re all, quite simply, terrific.
I must mention the two female leads, Layman and Rhetta Mykeal, outstanding actors with voices that bring down the house—the audience broke into applause during their final duet within “Eyes, Look Your Last,” emotionally powerful and brilliantly executed. The characters they portray could not be more different (a nod to costumer Seth Bodie along with the actors themselves) and yet are equally strong and interesting. (There’s more mystery to the women characters in Hair, possibly because of misogyny; women’s complaint at the time was, “They’re out fighting the fucking revolution, and we’re making goddamn dinner again?”)
And it’s a sheer pleasure to watch—and listen to—Lagasse and Kelly together. The two have a remarkable onstage chemistry underlined by tight harmonies in their musical numbers (“Hair” is particularly good) and their projection of cohesion. Lagasse handles Claude’s confusion, his unpopular decision, and his acceptance of its consequences with grace and aplomb… and makes one’s heart ache for him.
Pleasant returns as director and choreographer after his breathtaking work at Peregrine last year on Chicago and is every bit as terrific here. The play pulsates with energy and vigor, and it was fascinating to watch the audience—many of whose members were of the generation to have experienced hippie life first-hand—respond.
“How dare they try to end this beauty?” asks the cast; but it’s Peregrine that has the response: as long as we can tell the story, the beauty won’t be lost. The ensemble’s production of Hair is a testament to the power of theatre and a reminder that idealism could just make a difference again.