Review: Life and Times, Episode 1

By Wendy Rosenfield
For the Inquirer

Your response to Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times, Episode 1, will depend on your response to the hipster aesthetic. If you’re on board with the idea that everyone is special in his/her own way, that no life detail is too inconsequential or private to languish in obscurity, that an unremarkable white, suburban, upper-middle-class childhood deserves the bittersweet, stylized treatment of an experimental staged-musical version of a Wes Anderson film, you’ll love it. I’m pretty sure every African American in the audience, plus a half-dozen others, left before intermission at Tuesday's opening. I loved it. Go ahead and judge. 

This is Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s third Fringe appearance here, and this time they bring together several trends: the marathon (see Mike Daisey, Lucy Thurber for present examples), and musical documentary theater (see The Civilians). The show’s script, a verbatim operatic re-enactment of a 16-hour telephone interview between Pavol Liska and Kristin Worrall, the company’s 34-year-old sound designer, relishes each “Um” and “ah.” Sometimes a single performer uses them as punctuation, other times, they receive a full-cast chorus. Here, the means of communication is almost as important as its content. 

And there’s such triumphant beauty in the way directors Liska and Kelly Copper and composer Robert M. Johanson match the staccato rhythms of a human being collecting her thoughts, or the flood of memories that burst forth in a glorious wave. Episode 1 recounts Worrall’s life from birth to age eight (her story totals five episodes, each performed in a style that reflects its increasingly mature content), and the simplicity of those years is reflected in simple choreography, with knees bouncing, or arms waving in unison, and upbeat keyboard-and-flute tunes that could be lost entries from an elementary school production of Really Rosie.

While the whole endeavor might sound hopelessly indulgent, it’s not. I mean, it is, but these things take time, and it’s remarkable to watch the discrete recollections of Worrall’s earliest years -- the way her grandmother drank tea from fine china, but her mother used mugs; the placement of a preschool Play-Doh station -- dissolve into a wider view of the world and the realization that other people’s families work differently and not always so well. 

This ensemble goes for broke in such a heartfelt manner, with burly, bearded men and feisty grown women wide-eyed and singing for hours, it’s not just an affirmation that every life matters, but also that Kristen Worrall’s life, small and simple, matters. They made it matter to me. That’s a beautiful message, and it’s worth as many hours as it takes.

Playing at: Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., Episode 2, Sept. 11, 7 p.m.; Episodes 3 and 4, Sept. 12, 7 p.m.; Episodes 4.5 and 5, Sept. 13, 7 p.m.; Episodes 1-5 marathon, Sept. 14, 1:30 p.m. Tickets: $10 to $65. Information: 215-413-1318 or www.FringeArts.com

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