Off-Broadway Theater Review: LIFE AND TIMES: EPISODES 1-4 (The Public Theater)

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by Sarah Taylor Ellis on January 23, 2013

in Theater-New York

A PLAYFULLY PROFOUND MASTERPIECE

“Oh my God, I can’t believe we’re doing this. Okay …”

Warm laughter of recognition spread across the audience. This thought had undoubtedly crossed all our minds more than a few times during Life and Times: Episodes 1 – 4, an eleven-hour theatrical event devised by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma (which, for the record, is from New York City and not Oklahoma). The episodes can also be witnessed in three separate parts for the non-marathon minded.

Presented by Soho Rep, Life and Times is based on a set of 10 phone conversations with company member Kristin Worrall, who also performs in the production. Nature Theater of Oklahoma wildly theatricalizes a verbatim transcript of these detailed autobiographical interviews, and each episode in this projected 10-part series takes on a unique performance style. To call Life and Times “monumental” feels paradoxical, since the show’s subject matter is decidedly mundane. Yet under the sharp direction of Kelly Cooper and Pavol Liska (both of whom also led the interviews), Nature Theater of Oklahoma has found a way (or, rather, multiple ways) of elevating the prosaic to monumental heights.

Sarah Taylor Ellis' Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Nature Theater of Oklahoma's LIFE AND TIMES: Epsidoes 1-4My mouth was agape for most of Episode 1: a catchy pop opera composed by Robert M. Johanson, Julie LaMendola, and Daniel Gower and orchestrated for a child-friendly ensemble of ukelele, piano, glockenspiel, and flute (played by Worrall herself). Along with Worrall, the ensemble – Ilan Bachrach, Elisabeth Conner, Gabel Eiben, Anne Gridley, Mr. Johanson, Matthew Korahais, Ms. LaMendola and Alison Weisgall – bounces us through Worrall’s childhood, from her birth in Providence, Rhode Island, to her first years in elementary school. Her embarrassment at peeing her pants or her anger at her brother for scribbling all over her original book The Lonely Owl are elevated to humorously operatic proportions. The actors freely swap and share the text in a communal act of storytelling. Sometimes they reenact scenes, but more often, they perform gestures and buoyant choreography with hoops and bright red balls to evoke a rich sensory memory of childhood.

Sarah Taylor Ellis' Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Nature Theater of Oklahoma's LIFE AND TIMES: Epsidoes 1-4In Episode 2, sleek shoulder isolations and pelvic thrusts dominate Worrall’s sexual awakening in 3rd through 8th grade, which is theatricalized as a disco routine complete with a fog machine and an oversized disco ball. In flashy Adidas tracksuits and Converse sneakers, the ensemble’s sung-through storytelling chronicles kissing with her girlfriend Cindy (a memory she almost censors herself from telling), her first “real kiss” with Pete Jackson (although she later calls another kiss her “first”), her obsessions with Sting and the Police (whose music is smartly integrated into the score), and her middle school depression (which, in retrospect, was for no apparent reason). Episode 2 is undoubtedly the tightest and most engaging episode, should you desire to take in a single part.

Sarah Taylor Ellis' Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Nature Theater of Oklahoma's LIFE AND TIMES: Epsidoes 1-4The third segment, Episodes 3 and 4, delves into the melodramatic mystery of high school; the genre for this act recalls the Agatha Christie stories Worrall adored as a young teen, and several musical moments bring emotional height to major events such as her drunken adventures in England and her prom date with Pete Avery. After 9 hours of theater, Episode 4 falters somewhat – not only because the ensemble flattens into a static tableau by Episode 4, but because Worrall begins filling in the gaps of her narrative rather than progressing (semi) chronologically. Regardless, the zany genre flip at the end of Episode 4 makes for a wondrous conclusion that has me on the edge of my seat for Episodes 4.5/5.

Sarah Taylor Ellis' Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Nature Theater of Oklahoma's LIFE AND TIMES: Epsidoes 1-4Life and Times is far from a “universal” story. Rather, it is the specifics of Worrall’s journey that resonate. Over the course of the day at the Public Theater, the audience sinks into Worrall’s distinctive voice. Every prosaic “um,” “heh,” “groovy,” and “hahaha!” is scored – and often emphasized with rolling harmonies. (No wonder she and Cindy Legrand were known as “the gigglers” in elementary school.) We grow to know and love the other central characters in her life – Cindy and Cheryl and Pete – and relish in their reemergence in her narrative.

Worrall is less an actress to be pinpointed on the stage and more a collection of all the people in her life and all the stories they have shared. In fact, Life and Times may be the least self-indulgent and the most communal “one woman” play to ever be staged. As Nature Theater of Oklahoma delves into this rich well of Worrall’s remembrances with an infectious sense of whimsy, the audience will find themselves digging through their own past. A flash of yellow on the wall, the gesture of wringing out a wet swimsuit, and the sounds of Sting at a high school dance can trigger the most unexpected memories.

Life and Times will not be everyone’s cup of tea; we lost a few audience members after each expansive episode. But those who stuck around for Episodes 1 – 4 last Sunday found themselves rapt in a playfully profound masterpiece. Did I mention that the marathon dates include dinner and dessert, served between episodes by several members of the cast? By cultivating such a homey environment, Nature Theater of Oklahoma is in the art of not only theater, but of imaginative memory making. I have a feeling this theatrical experience will figure prominently in my own life and times.

photos courtesy of Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Life and Times: Episodes 1 – 4
a co-production of Nature Theater of Oklahoma and Burgtheater Wien
presented by Soho Rep at The Public Theater at Astor Place
a special engagement of the 2013 Under the Radar Festival
scheduled to end on February 2, 2013
for tickets, call 212-539-8500 or visit http://tickets.publictheater.org/

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