"What is this supposed to be about anyways?" a girl asked her friend in Moore Theater before the beginning of Dartmouth's Nov. 8 mainstage production of "Hair." "I think it's about hippies," her friend said.
While hippies are a key ingredient of this play's success, the appeal of "Hair," directed and choreographed by theater professor Carol Dunne, goes a lot deeper.
From the moment the cast jumps through the aisles and onto all levels of the stage, "Hair" hypnotizes audience members with its sparkling energy and spirit of dreamlike reflection. With its bright cast, bright colors and soulful songs, "Hair" is a sensual and moving look at the contemporary counterculture's reaction to the horror and high death toll of the Vietnam War.
"Hair" is centered on a group of hippies called the Tribe, living together in New York City in 1969. The world of the Tribe is shaken when one of its beloved members Claude receives a draft card. Claude, played by Joshua Feder '08, stands out as a young man confronted with the contradiction between his hatred and fear of the war and his duty to go to obey the draft.
"Start being an American," Claude's mother tells him when he says he wishes he was from Manchester, England. Through Claude's conflicted viewpoint, "Hair" asks the question: What does it really mean to be an American? This question, powerful in the 1960s, is also relevant today with the current war in Iraq.
Sheila, played by Olivia Gilliat '08, and Berger, played by Matthew Cohn '08, are other members of the Tribe who stood out in the performance.
Sheila, who organizes most of the protest efforts in the play, is believable as the voice of the hippie's main desire for a peaceful world: "Love now, peace now," she chants after her heartfelt song, "I believe in love." Sheila also comments upon other evils in America such as racism and segregation: "What do we think is really great? To bomb, lynch and segregate."
Cohn does an excellent job playing the charismatic, somewhat hardened leader of the Tribe, Berger. Berger's confusion at the world occasionally manifests in anger, like when he slaps Sheila for no clear-cut reason. Overall, however, Berger has a good heart, and the scene when he hugs Claude goodbye has some of the most powerful moments in the entire play.
"Hair," despite its dramatic tone and serious messages, employs humor to convey the emotions of the time period. In one of the most humorous parts of the play, middle-aged adult tourists come to observe the Tribe, a scene that points out the clash between the generations.Margaret Mead, played by Effie Cummings MALS '07, is particularly hilarious when she uses a giggly voice to question the hippies: "Are you? Oh dear, a hippie?!" she asks Claude in front of the Tribe.
Margaret is especially intrigued and bemused by the Tribe members' long hair, which leads to the title song "Hair": "Hair like Jesus wore it. Hallelujah! I adore it! Hallelujah! Mary loved her son. Why don't my mother love me?" the Tribe sings out to her.
Beneath the humor of the play, the underlying tension of what will happen to Claude remains. Claude attempts to burn his draft card several times, but eventually chickens out, burning his license and birth certificate instead. Because we know that Claude must eventually leave for Vietnam, there is a lurking sadness behind all the lighter parts of the play.
If you are looking for a straight-forward play with clearly delineated scenes and characters, however, this isn't the right performance. The beauty of this play is in its abstract, surreal nature. Think Picasso, not Norman Rockwell.
One of the most surreal, mystical parts of the play is during act one at the "Be-In." This scene highlights the 1960s idea of free love, when the Tribe lifts Sheila, partially nude, high above them in a ritualistic moment. The Tribe then clumps together onstage in a massive orgy, with everyone on top of someone or underneath someone else.
The hypnotic effect of this scene is further achieved by the dark red smoky lights and projection of the full moon onto the back of the stage, as well as the cast chanting "Beads, flowers, freedom, happiness," in the song "Haire Krishna."
Claude's LSD hallucination in the second act is another abstract but moving scene. In this hallucination, members of the Tribe play the roles of both American soldiers and Vietnamese. Historical and literary characters such as Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara run across the stage in the confusion of Vietnam. Soldiers take women one by one from a circle where they are singing and laughing and rape them. The chaos of Claude's hallucination brings the play to its terrifying climax. Claude is Vietnam-bound and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it.
We could predict all along what Claude's fate would be, but the ending that includes a sniper, a coffin, crying and winter coats still stands out as deeply tragic.
Dartmouth's production of "Hair" shows that hippies weren't just about bright clothes, LSD, pot and long hair. They were a voice in an America ripped apart by war. They attempted to react against things that they found disturbing in American society and to salvage the youth being robbed in the midst of Vietnam.
The hopeful song "Let the Sunshine In" at the end of the play is sung while a bright yellow light pierces through the dark lights of the stage. In the director's notes in the program, Dunne explains the importance of the ending: "Its anthem asks us to look within ourselves and find a way to make the world a better, more compassionate and peaceful place."
"Hair" plays at the Moore Theater, November 14 through16 at 8 p.m. and November 17 at 2 p.m.