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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 14, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 37
Puppets and protest
Arts & Entertainment
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Puppets and protest

'This Land' captures the songs but not the soul of Woody Guthrie

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

THIS LAND - WOODY GUTHRIE
STRAWBERRY THEATRE WORKSHOP
Through October 6


Greg Carter clearly reveres the late, great folk singer Woody Guthrie. Guthrie embodied the mission of a folk musician to champion the people, both by singing about common hardships and by expressing the need for change. Carter mounted a version of this show in 2004 as Strawberry Theatre Workshop's inaugural production, though he first developed it in 1993 at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in Minneapolis.

Carter, artistic director of Strawberry Theatre Workshop, is a master puppet maker, and the puppets used in the production are stunningly beautiful and evocative, with veiny, arthritic old hands and craggy, worn faces. He also chose many excerpts of Guthrie's prose-writing to interweave with Guthrie's songs and present the singer's worldview in more detail.

One spends the first few minutes marveling at the puppetry and enjoying the expert musical arrangements of Edd Key, who channels Guthrie's style in his singing. We're introduced to a long excerpt of prose, broken into several pieces, which is meant to evoke Guthrie's yearning to express something profound and fundamental - a word that encompasses all other words.

This sets the tone for the remainder of the work, which becomes an almost inarticulate message - muddied rather than clearly painted. In the program, Carter expresses a wish that the story being told is about us, the audience. Yet, without a narrative, it's merely a collection of Woody's expressive art.

Since Carter conceived and curated this work, it would have been interesting to see what another director might have done with it, from a less emotionally connected perspective. A challenge to Carter's choices (e.g., why this song? why here? why this length?) could have sharpened his focus. Instead, a number of pieces lag, as the intended point is made quickly but then lingered over far too long.

Guthrie is perhaps a more challenging composer today than he was 50 years ago. His values would likely be labeled 'communist' or 'socialist' even more readily nowadays than they were back then, and his support of unions, immigrants, farm workers, and coal miners would enrage the Tea Party. In fact, the clearest message of the evening is how much has stayed similar to what Guthrie sang about years ago.

There is little humor here. One amusing detail is that Guthrie wrote 'This Land Is Your Land' out of fury at the popularity of 'God Bless America,' with its treacly sentiment that God's hand is on the nation 'so don't you worry none.' But it is useful to be reminded of the extreme poverty of Dust Bowl America, the exploitation of children in coal mines, and the deaths of more than 100 women in the 1911 New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (locked in by managers who didn't want them leaving their stations to get drinks of water). The racism of yesterday is still present today, and politics hasn't gotten any cleaner.

The players all pull their weight in an effort to make this work sing. While it doesn't end up being a call to arms, or a historically clear path from yesterday to today, or even a revelation about its subject, it is still a worthy effort - one that could be made to have more of a conscious impact. For more information, go to www.strawshop.org or www.brownpapertickets.com/event/260668, or call 1-800-838-3006.

Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters.

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