Opening Nights: This Land/Woody Guthrie

Live music, film, puppets, and more: It's a multimedia pileup.

We celebrated Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday in July, and now comes this revival of Greg Carter's This Land/Woody Guthrie, a 1992 show that garnered much acclaim during its first Seattle staging in 2004. What's good about the show remains good: It blends a variety of media, including live singers and a crackerjack band of pickers, pluckers, and pianists who perform Guthrie's anthemic songs. There are films and animated projections that skitter across the firmament of contemporary American history, with references ranging from early union battles to the death of Matthew Shepard to the current presidential election.

Among the cast are an assortment of puppets inspired by the wind-carved and careworn faces of the Dust Bowl (created by Carter, Jenny Anderson, and Paul Chamberlain). As the tableau unfolds, many of the show's emotional highlights are assigned to these half-sized puppets, as their fully visible handlers speak for them. It's an audacious device; and while the puppets' faces never change, their operators nonetheless play them as effectively as the musicians do their instruments. They wring a surprising variety of emotions from these small figures—so like the flickering ghosts from a bygone America, telling their tales in pantomime, with others delivering the words they no longer can.

All of this would add up to a memorable night of theater if only Carter would develop a through-line in his historical ramble. Wonderful songs, a talented cast, videos, and puppetry are great, but they're also a multivehicle pileup. However admirable in sentiment, This Land/Woody Guthrie is a pageant, not a play; it's a roughly stenciled valentine to Guthrie and his politics. If you're on board with those politics, fine, but if you're not, God help you, because there's nothing else to latch onto.

Presented by Strawberry Theatre Workshop, running close to two hours and 45 minutes (including the 15-minute intermission), the show becomes a slog. It's too many dirges stating the same case, with a script begging to be edited. Most important during this pivotal political season, there's a nagging sensation that Carter has some overarching point that he can't get off his tongue. Maybe when Chelsea Clinton runs for president, his next restaging will tell us.

 
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