Cambridge, MA - When audiences give performers a standing ovation, sometimes it feels obligatory rather than congratulatory. In the case of the four actor/musicians performing in "Woody Sez" at the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square, the applause and accolades heard at Wednesday’s press opening were not only well deserved, they were rewarded with an encore.
"Woody" is a show that serves as a basic musical biography of the Oklahoma born troubadour Woodrow Wilson Guthrie as well as an important lesson in U.S. history. Guthrie's songs about “Arkies,” “Oakies,” migrant workers, unionists, anti-war activists, and frankly many of the people Howard Zinn wrote about in the "People's History," form the framework and raison d'être for "Woody Sez." In the hands of musicians Darcie Deaville, David Lutken, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Tierstein and Director Nick Corley, the performances should be a required course for students of all ages and musical affinities.
Woody Guthrie was born one hundred years ago and died in 1967 of complications of Huntington's Chorea disease at the easily arguable too-young age of 55. He was there when Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and many other poets and musicians began to reinvigorate American culture with political folk music. Unlike his good friend, Pete Seeger, Guthrie’s disease kept him from participating in the folk revival of the 1960’s.
And like Zinn, who died before the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Guthrie’s lyrics and music inspire contemporary artists in their quest to tell stories of dispossessed, disappeared, and exploited people here and around the world.
That's not surprising, says Jim Hightower who wrote recently: “If Woody himself were to reappear among us, rambling from town to town, he wouldn't need to write any new material. He'd see that the Wall Street banksters who crashed our economy are getting fat bonus checks, while the victims of their greed are still getting pink slips and eviction notices, and he could just pull out this verse from his old song, "Pretty Boy Floyd…”
Yes, as through this world I've wandered,
I've seen lots of funny men.
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
For those of us who seek out source material, the George Kaiser Family Foundation plans on opening an archive and center dedicated to Guthrie in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by the end of this year. According to the Tulsa World newspaper, the Foundation purchased the Guthrie Archives – formerly housed in the Mount Kisko, NY home of daughter Nora Guthrie – for an undisclosed price.
In “Woody Sez,” David Lutken portrays Guthrie as a loving son, brother, and father who witnessed a fair share of tragedy in his time but managed to persevere. In fact, Lutken and Corley, the two “devisors” behind “Woody Sez,” want audiences to understand – and get angry at –the class warfare that has been going on in this country since the Great Depression. But the takeaway, it seems, is much more positive: that is, for every act of desperation there is an equal and affirming moment of perseverance.
The search for a balance between the two drove musical vagabonds such as Guthrie to leave his family for long periods of time and travel the country; picking up songs and culture like apple seeds, creating orchards of hope, if you will.
Of course, it wasn’t all banjos and hoe-downs. He and his traveling friends had to make a living. As a political folksinger, it was difficult – a scene in which Woody tries to perform his repertoire on a commercial radio station in New York City illustrates this perfectly. As a migrant farm worker, it was next to impossible; with banks foreclosing on farms and unscrupulous employers forcing workers to “pre-spend” their meager wages at the company store.
All of these stories are told through Guthrie’s songs, interspersed with narration from the wise-cracking Lutken and Deaville, Russell, and Tiersten playing a multitude of characters including Woody’s mom and sister, and friends such as actor Will Geer and singer Pete Seeger.
The performers play multiple instruments. I particularly enjoyed Darcie Deaville on mandolin, Helen Jean Russell on upright bass, and Andy Tierstein on the fiddle. Tiersten also shows off his virtuosity on the spoons.
Most of the well-known songs are here such as “Bound For Glory” and “This Land is Your Land.” I would have enjoyed hearing some of Guthrie’s lesser known works such as “Against Th’ Law” and “A Picture From Life’s Other Side.” But that’s a very small critique compared to the enormity to which I enjoyed this show.
“Woody Sez” continues through May 26th at the Loeb Drama Center, American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. “In Woody’s spirit,” according to the A.R.T. website, free hootenannies are scheduled after select performances. For more information.
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