There’s an unsavory expression in the opera world: “park and bark.” It’s used to refer to a singer who — with her attention occupied by vocal acrobatics, flips and turns — picks a spot on stage and plants herself in it. At one time, it was SOP — after all, it’s opera; we’d rather have a crystalline high C than a soprano who can do cartwheels, right? Times have changed, though, and the advent of television means, some will tell you, that we’ve adopted impossible standards for singers, expecting them to fly and leap and be lifted above a crowd of dancers while delivering a flawless aria (Thanks, Natalie Dessay). And, while Stephen Schwartz’s 1970 parable “Godspell” is much more Carole King than “Cavalleria rusticana,” The Rep’s production illustrates the antithesis of parking-and-barking. The cast, largely made up of members of New York City dance troupe 2 Ring Circus, embodies the idea at the core of circus culture itself: making the impossible look easy.
If you’ve ever seen a production of “Godspell,” you’ll be familiar with the juxtaposition of flower children and holy scripture, conceived originally as a thesis by a Carnegie Mellon music student in 1970. Bell-bottom-clad actors regale us with the perils of worshiping both God and money. Someone pretends to smoke pot, probably. The hair is big, the costumes are bigger, and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus gets the “Soul Train” treatment. Almost always, the feeling is one of looseness, liberality, improvisation. That’s not the case with this “Godspell.” Everything is immaculately timed. There are hundreds of props to manage, and damn near every second of the musical is tightly choreographed, leaving no room for error. A marching bass drum appears from nowhere. A boxing ring materializes from a rope held just so, and Looney Tunes-ishly large boxing gloves finish the picture. Nearly every cast member juggles. You’re so distracted by the trapeze artists swinging wildly from ropes and silks and manufactured balconies that you barely notice that Ben Franklin is playing the recorder. Or an accordion. (If the opening ensemble number, “Tower of Babble,” was a little stiff, I can’t help but think it was because the music and movement were performed with such precision that, by necessity, the cast’s attention was on sixteenth note rests and prop placement rather than on the opening night audience.)
The play “opened” in near-silence, with a droning bell ringing low in the background, the curtain fully open. The White Clown emerged on a single crutch, disrobing slowly and changing into a mechanic’s jumpsuit, the kind that might have an embroidered nametag on the lapel that reads “Earl.” He hobbled slowly around the stage, picking up stray bits of trash on the ground that’d been abandoned by the evening’s circusgoers. Opening stragglers trickled into the theater, and since the house lights were still up, they’d get a few steps in before lowering their voices suddenly, realizing they were the only source of noise in an otherwise hushed room. Only after the White Clown (Joshua Dean) had come and gone did Arkansas Repertory Theater’s John Miller-Stephany step out, capitalizing on the sense of heightened anticipation created by the play’s unconventional opening. He took us through a snapshot of the upcoming season, the first of his choosing as the theater’s new artistic director: Rebecca Gilman’s adaptation of Carson McCullers’ “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”; David Ives’ rewrite of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope,” called “The School of Lies.” “It’s a little bit naughty, a little bit bawdy,” Miller-Stephany warned, “but I think Little Rock can handle it.” The audience laughed, if a little nervously. He outlined the year’s-end holiday offerings: an original orchestral version of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” staggered with performances of David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries” in The Rep’s new education annex — “an antidote to Christmas saccharine,” Miller-Stephany said.
In a deft move, Director Donna Drake and her crew plotted all the action up front. The back half of the stage was framed by five billowing drapes, giving the illusion of a big top and condensing the chaos to the front few yards of the stage (and sometimes, in the aisles — heads up, person-assigned-to-Seat-A7). Because everything’s happening in such close quarters, the audience is allowed to absorb a constant stream of caricatures in a smaller “box” – I’m not even certain this show would work quite as well as it does if it were put up on a larger stage. The actors’ bodies and limbs folded in and over each other. A puppet show appeared on a metal sawhorse, center stage (Hey, this bit was a delight – can y’all slate “Avenue Q” for 2019?) A clown played a trombone sigh while doing the splits. Hakim Rashad McMillan delivered a monologue in perfect preacher cadence while his colleagues performed a complete costume change on him. Elizabeth Munn (Aerialist) went hardcore Olympian in “Learn Your Lessons Well,” hanging suspended — upside down, at times — from a rope hung from the ceiling. “Horses” paraded through — symbolized by glittering, bouncing headdresses atop the heads of the circus crew. At one point, Lani Corson picked up her animal trainer’s whip, essentially using it as a percussion instrument to keep time (expertly) toward the portion of her number in which she’s not mid-air. And — as if the vocal and visual spectacle she just provided weren’t enough — the piece’s last downbeat is given with a crash of her whip, decapitating an oversized flower whose stem is pinched between the front teeth of her colleague.
Astoundingly, all of that leaves room for some non-aerialists to shine: notably, standout vocalist LaDonna Burns and Aymee Garcia, who steals the show as the Bearded Lady. (Bearded Lady: I love you. Don’t ever change.)
In acting school, there are exercises in which developing thespians are encouraged to boil down emotions to their essence. They’re asked to distill the words “no” and “yes” into a single movement or expression, or to switch rapidly between pantomiming someone who is asking for something and someone who is withholding it. In that way, this show must have been a lot of fun for these actors to put together; expressions are larger than life, gestures are grand and burlesque. Thanks to some technically demanding slapstick from Ben Leibert (Dog Clown) and from the aforementioned Garcia, there’s also comic relief at every turn. There are quieter moments, too, though, and your sense of pacing will be glad for them. Memorably, Joshua Dean (White Clown) ends “All Good Gifts” by letting a cyr wheel envelop him, closing in around him as he lowers his body to a sitting pose — precisely timed to the last note of the song. The wheel he’s spent some serious time rotating inside of is made of metal, but in his hands, it seems feather-light. Dean shines, too, in the Lazarus scene. He’s a master of his own body, and when he sheds his crutch to take a tentative step, then a bigger one, then a somersault, you believe him. Wisely, that “lame shall walk again” moment was accompanied only by the low hum of the air conditioning unit required for an early June performance, lending it a lovely reverence.
If I left with any major beef, it’s that the subtext of The Rep’s setting Schwartz’s play in 1960s Birmingham, Alabama during the civil rights movement was not only completely lost in the shuffle, but was unnecessary to begin with. (Several people I’ve talked to about the show since were unaware of the extra context, and I sort of wish I had been, too.) After all, “Godspell” is already a juxtaposition; a hippie-fied mash-up of “freak show” culture and biblical themes. It doesn’t require the additional layer, and superimposing it on this production gave the civil rights theme short shrift. I guess when a musical’s been around since pet rocks were a thing, the tendency is to want to tinker with it, but when your “Godspell” circus clowns are this capable and dazzling, Schwartz’s poetry and parable stands on its own.