The Fantasticks opened in 1960, the same year I was born (though they forgot to mention this in the program). A burgeoning counterculture was already rebelling against the fathers who had clammed up about Omaha Beach and Korea, invented Suburbia, and wanted only to watch us play on trim lawns at the end of the road. But we didn’t want the end of the road. We wanted to be On the Road. And, deep down, we suspected our fathers did, too. If only they could remember”¦
But remember, what? What, exactly, is El Gallo asking us to remember?
After 50 years I think I know, and it’s why I chose to stage The Fantasticks at Theatre West this year.
The first time I saw The Fantasticks, I was 13. My mother, an actress, who had essentially given up her early New York career to have me, dragged me to a local high school production. I remember liking the Indian.Â At 26 I made the pilgrimage down to Sullivan Street to see the show. Once again, I liked the Indian. (Mostly the show just seemed exhausted.) But now, at 52, the play suddenly makes more sense to me. This time when I read “Try to remember,” I understand what El Gallo is asking.
He’s asking to us to remember that we’re alive.
We all yearn to have our lives witnessed, so there will be people in the world who remember who we were as much as who we are. Isn’t that why we’re all on Facebook, so we can see ourselves through the eyes and tagged photos of people who still think of us with thinner waist lines? As El Gallo knows, Matt’s and Luisa’s story will remind us of our own.Â And because theater is a communal experience, at some point during the show, the audience becomes aware that we’re all remembering our lives at the same time. As El Gallo invites us to witness Matt’s and Luisa’s lives, the play is witnessing ours. And we suddenly have the sensation of living. We remember that we’re alive.
With a son looking at colleges, that’s something I very much need to feel.
So I chose to stage The Fantasticks. But how to approach it?
To help us remember our own lives,the writers Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt imbued the show with a sense of nostalgia by employing a variety of familiar storytelling devices: a little Shakespeare, a little vaudeville, a little Beat poetry, all mashed together. In 1960 this was delightful. Today it’s expected.
What’s needed is a return to that sense of surprise. In our production, the fathers are still clown archetypes descended from commedia dell’arte characters — but instead of straw-hatted vaudevillians, our fathers look more like Laurel and Hardy. The mute is still based on Japanese theater devices, but instead of a funereal-faced black-hatted man, I have a lovely, half-smiling Lee Meriwether as a sort of Earth Mother Goddess, in keeping with the show’s seasonal and gardening themes. I use invisible swords instead of wooden dowels, slap-sticks instead of colored ribbon whips, faux-juggling, Houdini’s Metamorphosis trick, a floating ball, a black-light moon, and a set that looks like a series of carnival midway platforms instead of a commedia stage. The goal here is not to re-invent the play, but to re-imagine some of the stagecraft. I want the audience to forget that they know the old bits, so they can concentrate on remembering all the things El Gallo wants them to remember.
Like me, The Fantasticks was born into a world that was increasingly defined by its counter-culture. But where is that counter-culture now? I read recently that people today tend to mark the moments in their lives, not by the historical events of the day, but by the entertainments they’ve enjoyed.Â We once had music and movies that rebelled against that kind of stuffy self-satisfied complacency, but today rebellion has been largely cuckolded by corporatization. Dissent feels engineered, woven into the fabric of the state (not to get all Orwellian on you). And we feel it, deep down. We feel the need, every now and then, to get off-line and go On The Road, like we used to, just once, in our “crowded sunlit lifetimes.” Try to remember.
And if you remember, then follow”¦
The Fantasticks, Theatre West, Â 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, LA 90068. Opens Friday. Fri- Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm. Â Through October 7. Tickets: $28-34. 323-851-7977. www.theatrewest.org.
***All The Fantasticks production photos by Charlie Mount
Charlie Mount is the producing director of the Chestnuts program at Theatre West, a production arm devoted to quality revivals of great plays. His recent productions include Seascape and the Ovation-nominated Waiting For Lefty (for best play ““ large theater, 2010-2011 season). He also directed Acting ““ The First Six Lessons, performed and written by Beau Bridges and Emily Bridges.