There would be little reason to write about Dude were it not for the sidelights it projects on certain theatre "aesthetics." This musical (Broadway Theater), the first big entry into our entertainment slaughterhouse, is a mishmash of all the devices of stagecraft introduced at little theaters during the past ten years. They spell avant-garde, and have already become old fashioned.
Dude is an "allegory", picturing the birth of man in the person of a black child born of two white actors (a touch of "integration"), and his fall and subsequent redemption through love brought about by numerous musical combos from hillbilly fiddles to the smear and bang of rock. The music is by Galt MacDermot, the book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni, authors of Hair. MacDermot's music consists of what may have originally been rather pretty tunes, but their elaboration for colossal production suffocates them as surely as it deprives the lyrics of intelligibility. The book is virtually nonexistent.
There is an "environmental" setting: it encompasses us. The central area, or main stage, occupies the space where the orchestra seats are usually situated: it is a circle covered by straw matting. This approximated a theatre-in-the-round arrangement. The audience closest to the circle where the narrative is enacted sits fore and aft of the performers in an area called the Trees. The first tier above the circular stage is referred to as the Foothills and above that is the Mountains. Much of the show is sung, hung and shouted among the Trees, as well as between the Foothills and the Mountains. Display is everywhere. This allows for what has come to be known as audience participation - with a resemblance, in this instance, to a block party. Above the main playing area is a florally bedecked steel scaffold, through which God (dubbed no.33) and the Devil descend on swings or are hoisted into a hole in the dome of the theatre which is Heaven. There is a large cast, including black and white children. The instrumentalists are located in whatever free space is available. There is enough lighting apparatus to illuminate several city streets.
Bold and adventurous Tom O'Horgan has been called in to "save" the affair, which had begun rehearsals under a different director. Since the spectacle lacks basic coherence, O'Horgan fills every moment with stage "business", movement and ornament. Something is always going on. The paradox of this effort is that it produces not so much bewilderment as boredom; instead of exuberance, we experience lethargy.
There are some effective voices, notably those of the adolescent Ralph Carter, who plays the young Dude - the show's "Adam" - and of Salome Bey as Mother Earth. But all the singing, as in most musicals nowadays, is miked, an addition to the pollution by sound which poisons the atmosphere.
Another aspect of dude will become more evident as the season progresses: a whole series of "unearthly" plays are to be produced. They take place in Heaven, in Paradise, in the galaxies of the solar system and among primordial beings in the depths of the sea. There will also be manifestations of nostalgia. Confrontations with present realities will be found chiefly among certain foreign plays, revivals and documentaries. Sound realism or mature symbolism is only for those not yet submerged in contemporary chaos.
Copyright The Nation.