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Theatre in Review: Folk Wandering (Pipeline Theatre Company/ART New York Theatres)

Kim Blanck. Photo: Suzi Sadler.

Folk Wandering begins with a bunch of people rummaging in an attic. Three objects are chosen at random, each of them cueing a story from a different decade. They are a diverse trio; the only thing linking these stories is the ineptitude with which they are told.

In nineteen fifty-five, Bobby, a singer with a group called The Dregs, flees Greenwich Village and hides out in a small-town Indiana bar, where the locals -- taking in his outfit of rolled-up blue jeans, tight white T-shirt, and leather jacket -- decide that he is James Dean, on the run from fame and fortune. While he soaks up the adoration of the locals, Hannah, a backup singer and songwriter with The Dregs, tries to convince him to come back home to New York.

In 1911, Rosealia, the spunky young daughter of Italian immigrants, wants to become a muckraking reporter; she practices the trade to which she aspires by putting out a scandal sheet focusing on the residents of her Ludlow Street tenement. This is supposed to be adorable, although, to these eyes, Rosealia is a perfect little pain in the neck, shouting out her neighbors' secrets for all to hear. (When Harlan, a neighbor boy, impulsively kisses her, then apologizes, she says, "You'd better be sorry! I'm going to write an 'exposee' on you!") As her fourteenth birthday approaches, she is told that she will join her mother and sister in working in a nearby shirtwaist factory -- three guesses as to the name.

The third plot strand, in 1933, is barely a story at all. It focuses on Kai, a young woman stranded somewhere in the American desert. Accompanied by her young daughter, Alma, she is desperately trying to get to California; hopelessly lost, they run into Everett Ruess, an art-world cult figure, writer, and artist who disappeared in Utah in 1933. He gives them directions, but is he real? Is he a ghost? Does it matter?

Jaclyn Backhaus' book is so sketchy and poorly constructed that it is impossible for these three intercut narratives to build on each other. The Bobby-Hannah plot hinges on the audience accepting that a good chunk of Indiana has lost its collective mind. (Among the characters is a star-worshipping waitress named Norma Pancakes whose proprietary syrup, Double Maple, is so potent it sounds like a marital aid.) Bobby gets it into his head that he and Hannah -- who reluctantly poses as a Hollywood publicist with the last name of Squipstein -- can live this way indefinitely, apparently going from town to town, gulling the locals. Because it is 1955, there's nothing for the audience to do but wait patiently for the announcement of Dean's death, which will cause Bobby's dreams to come crashing down.

The Rosealia plot is loaded with standard scenes from early-twentieth-century tenement life, a subject that has been worked to death in films, television shows, and musicals like Fiorello!, Rags, and Ragtime. Rosealia's mother is a staunch union supporter, her father runs around waving his arms and singing ecstatically about meatballs. (Apparently, there's no statute of limitations on cute ethnics in musical theatre.) Her sister brings home her fiancé, Joey, né Giuseppe, and Harlan moons over Rosealia. There's nothing particularly dramatic about it, even if you've guessed -- as will have most in the audience -- that Rosealia's new place of employment is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

The plot featuring Kai and Everett is the most evanescent, and since most audience members are unlikely to know anything about Everett Ruess, who is at best a historical footnote, these scenes are lacking in any ghost-story allure. (If there had been an intermission, there would have been a lot of Googling going on.) Kai and her daughter, Alma, are total ciphers -- we have no idea how they got to where they are and why they are traveling, although we are told that Alma's "deedaw" has passed away -- and there's little interest or suspense about their survival.

A final tableau reveals that we are meant to see Hannah, Kai, and Rosealia as women united in the struggle to realize their dreams, but this is a laughable notion, being too general to mean much of anything. (A tiny wooden heart is a plot point in all three narratives, but it provides no significant linkage.) The eleventh-hour attempt at valorizing the three heroines adds to the suspicion that this is really a dressed-up form of children's theatre, meant to offer little dollops of history and uplift. The score, by ten contributors, lacks a cohesive style or point of view; the songs do little to illuminate the characters and move the stories along: Instead of explaining Bobby's motivations, the song "Running" offers many repetitions of the phrase "running...run away." Kai's introductory number, "Burning Bright," consists of cryptic musings ("Undo it/Unsay it/I would give anything to/Unknow it/Unmake it") in lieu of her backstory.

Andrew Neisler's direction -- he conceived Folk Wandering with Backhaus -- allows for plenty of mugging among the members of the large cast, but there are striking contributions from Morgan Siobhan Green, easily the most powerful singer and persuasive actress in the cast, as Hannah; Dan Tracy, who also sings beautifully, as Harlan; and Kim Blanck, whose naturally strong presence lends some dignity and interest to the woefully underwritten Kai. Ben Hobbs' choreography ranges from teenage girls twisting themselves in erotic agony à la Bye Bye Birdie to the chorus, singing about evil landlords, pointing their fingers accusingly at us, as if we were gouging the poor and cutting off their heating supply.

Carolyn Mraz's set, a clutter-filled space surrounded by the bare frame of a house and backed on one side by mountains, is a reasonable, if unattractive, solution to the script's needs, and Christopher Bowser's lighting plausibly creates a distinct atmosphere for each time frame. Heather McDevitt Barton's eccentric costumes represent an interesting, and largely successful, attempt at turning thrift-shop chic into clothing of many eras. The sound design, by Jim Petty for Five Ohm Productions, is clear and natural-sounding.

An ambitious piece, Folk Wandering wanders all over the map, ending up a mishmash of styles and ideas. "All I need for my wandering soul/Are the things I've already found," the company sings at the end. Whatever that means. -- David Barbour

(5 March 2018)

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