Some things never change, especially in Eugene, where great pockets of time stop and drop into a sinkhole of self-fertilization. Look at our eternal perpetuation of hippie nostalgia, which has become a cottage industry in itself, for better and worse. Marx noted that all great historical moments — like the long-gone Age of Aquarius, for instance — occur twice, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce, and for those among us who forget that Easy Rider did not have a happy ending, a pair of plays currently in production carry a strong corrective message.
Set in the psychedelic heart of the ’60s, Hair is equal parts light and darkness, and Actors Cabaret of Eugene is the perfect troupe to eke out the show’s difficult tension between social chaos and communal frolic. Under direction of the wildly talented Mark VanBeever, this “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” comes alive on stage: the colorful, ramshackle set captures the woodsy urban slouch of San Francisco in the Summer of Love, and a live band gives the infectious music numbers an edge.
The large ensemble cast is all-in on this one, bringing mortal weight to wrenching set pieces like the Vietnam War fugue “Three-Five-Zero-Zero,” one of the highlights of the show. VanBeever and crew strike an affecting balance among the shifting social forces underlying Hair, which is more memorial than celebration. This is not to say that the musical is dark and dreary; rather, this production achieves the difficult task of contextualizing the ’60s, which, even from this distance, look a bit more chain link than daisy chain.
And lest we also forget that the Summer of Love faded into the Winter of Our Discontent, University Theatre’s challenging production of John Guare’s Landscape of the Body provides a stark portrait of New York City in the mid-’70s — an era of discord and dissolution that birthed punk, disco, Son of Sam and Deep Throat. On its surface a simple murder mystery, this play, aptly directed here by Jean Sidden, becomes a time-tripping meditation on the psycho-social currents in American culture that lead to mass despair and homicidal confusion.
Rebecca Lee is wonderful as Betty, a mousy woman who travels with her son Bert (Chris Daniels) to NYC to fetch her sister, Rosalie (Anne Lupi), and bring back to her family in Maine. Rosalie, however, is soon killed in an accident, and Betty — in a sort of Patricia Highsmith-David Lynch twist — assumes her identity as a porn actress. As Betty is pursued and harangued by one Detective Holahan (Chris Fuglestad), the play knocks gently at the fourth wall, as the audience comes to see the very circumstances that both blind and compel the characters on stage.
Taken together, this pair of production — Hair, a hippie story with a sad ending, and Landscape of the Body, a sad story that finishes on a promising note — provides an intriguing glimpse into the irregular heartbeat and clogged arteries of the American Dream as it beat on late last century, full of love, hate and hope, however faltering. And the beat goes on.
Hair runs through Feb. 15 at Actors Cabaret of Eugene. Landscape of the Body runs through Feb. 2 at University Theatre.