Last night I attended Fight With a Stick's opening of their latest performance, Oh What a Beautiful Morning!, at The Russian Hall. Frankly, I don't know what to make of the experience. Partly that's the point, as in their latest scenographic scrambling of our perceptions director Alexander Lazaridis Ferguson and his team of collaborators--especially video designer Josh Hite--are interested in taking what is in the background (and also off to the side) of the 1955 film version of the classic American musical Oklahoma! and moving it to the foreground. This results in some stunning visual effects, but at a scant 50 minutes the work feels a bit like a strung together series of scene studies rather than a fully realized deconstruction of the sensory and social environments of the film.
Placing the audience on risers that climb up the stage of the Russian Hall, and working with two scrims and a series of moveable walls, the piece begins by reproducing the widescreen opening shot of the film's cornfields. And then leaves us there. As the stuck first bars of the overture repeat on a loop, the video projection appears to start glitching, slowly advancing frame by frame as we plunge deeper and deeper into the thick rows of cornfields, a mash-up of genre tropes that makes one think that the creepy kids from the horror film Children of the Corn might leap out at us at any moment. Instead, we eventually are made to focus on a lone figure off in the distance toiling in the fields (a black sharecropper perhaps?), someone whose invisible labour is what helps to sustain not just farm girl Laurey Williams' romantic aspirations, but the entire state's territorial ones.
While I tend to be cautious about the aims of exposing an iconic work of art to contemporary critical scrutiny, I do want those aims to be clearly identified. Instead, I couldn't quite tell last night if Oh What a Beautiful Morning! was meant to be a study in performative decolonization (we hear stage directions referencing "Indian territory" in voiceover), a critique of capital accumulation (a windstorm blows the contents of Aunt Eller's farmhouse across the screen), or a Hitchcockian take on female hysteria. Here I refer to the fact that the piece's longest--and concluding--scene puts us in the kitchen with Laurey and Aunt Eller, the projected wallpaper on the back scrim seeming to advance on, and eventually absorb, them, as performers Hayley Gawthrop and Hin Hilary Leung slowly melt into the adjacent side walls. It was captivating to watch; I just don't know what purpose it served.
There are lots of similarly fascinating moments in Oh What, most of them abetted by Hite's uncanny video compositions: Shirley Jones dancing with herself courtesy of front and rear projections; the mirroring of live and recorded hand movements; and Gawthrop and Leung interacting with different screen avatars from the film like cutout figures from a carnival. Again, I found it difficult to figure out the connection between these moments and when the end credits and exit music from the film appeared I think everyone in the audience was a bit surprised. Oh, I guess that's it, was my response as the performers (which also include Logan Hallwas and Jessica Wilke) came out to take a bow. I'm still guessing.