What genre is your life story? Were your teenage years a murder mystery? Did your preschool comrades resemble a communist youth group, performing perfectly choreographed mass spectacles in tidy red and gray uniforms?
You may consider this question after taking in Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s ten-hour performance of Life and Times: Episodes 1-4, produced by Soho Rep and now playing at the Under the Radar Festival. Life and Times—NT’s ongoing, monumentally ambitious project—consists of the (rather ordinary) life story of company collaborator Kristin Worrall, as told to, and transformed by, artistic directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper. The saga will eventually comprise ten episodes; now on offer at The Public are the first four, roughly spanning Worrall’s babyhood through her high school prom night (much of which, apparently, was spent communing with a group of rather voluble frogs).
You can see these episodes individually. Or you can see them together, as a marathon ending at midnight, with performers serving knishes, hot dogs, and brownies during intermissions, and sending you into the January night with steaming cups of hot chocolate. Do the latter. To get the full effect, commit to the all-day (and evening) affair. Not every theatrical marathon justifies its length—but in this case, accumulation is art, and the epic performance turns small memories (Worrall’s, and yours) into big experiences during an extended communal day in the theater.
Worrall’s first-person chronicle—related to Liska by phone, and transcribed verbatim, complete with every “like” and “so”—became the libretto of Nature Theater’s piece. This text is distributed, in performance, among the ensemble members, and as each narrates, the others become back-up singers and avid listeners. Occasionally, Liska and Copper stage bits of the unfolding stories—a slow pantomime commemorates the middle-school horror of failing to ask a cute boy to dance. Mostly, though, the performance doesn’t illustrate the tale so much as estrange it, turning songs about everyday events into operatic arias and peppy group numbers. Worrall’s suburban girlhood turns into a communist-youth pageant, a nineties-era music video, and an old-fashioned mystery.
Each of these genres is not only quirky, but also appropriate—in the most revelatory way—to the subject matter it accompanies. Worrall’s early childhood is staged as a mass pageant performed by some unnamed communist youth. The actors sport uniforms, wave fluorescent hoops, and perform semaphore-like dance moves and strange gestures: rhythmic tummy-rubbing, fierce air-clawing, lots and lots of jazz hands. (These movements, often performed in an order determined by chance, are a hallmark of Nature Theater’s work—as is the exaltation of everyday conversation into epic performances.)
This youth-group conceit is endlessly amusing, but it also suggests the ways in which childhood is always a tug-of-war between mandates from authority—being strapped into backseats and corralled into classrooms—and the first stirrings of individuality. Worrall is alert to early injustices, from siblings’ misbehavior to class divides in her town, and these observations, too, are apt challenges to the everyone’s-equal aesthetic championed by socialist societies and preschools alike. Important themes occasion full-cast emphasis: “CARPOOLING,” a fixture of Worrall’s childhood, is belted out in multipart harmony.
If childhood is a youth pageant, early adolescence is a music video—or so suggest Liska and Copper in Episode Two. The cast, now attired in brightly-colored Adidas tracksuits, bops around to nineties-style tunes, as disco balls scatter beams of light. Group dances present unerring metaphors for the social pressures of junior high—the crush of conformity, the thrills of being noticed, the agonies of moving to a different beat.
Even more delightfully surprising is the analogy proposed by Episodes Three and Four, in which Worrall’s teenage years are staged in high Agatha Christie style. Backdrops conjure a British manor, and the performers, decked out in sweatervests and plaids, pose in a series of wide-eyed melodramatic tableaus. This creates an unexpected, but astute rendering of what high-school social dramas feel like. Worrall buys cigarettes incognito—posing, of course, as an eighteen-year-old—and investigates the mysteries of first kisses and first trips abroad. The relentlessly high stakes of a classic whodunit parallel perfectly the constant crisis of adolescence, and the ensemble’s gasps, grimaces, and discreet tears are both fitting and wildly entertaining.
Life and Times is beautiful because it’s particular—Worrall is a sensitive observer of her own life—and also because it’s everyone’s story. Enter the Public’s lobby at intermission and you’ll hear audience members gleefully exchanging their own memories, brought to the surface by Worrall’s. This happens because her stories are so thoughtful, but also so recognizably ordinary. Occasionally, Life and Times acknowledges this, gesturing to its original form—Worrall and Liska’s lengthy phone calls—and wryly apologizing for its apparent banality. “That was like a—mess of nothing I just told you!” exclaims one performer toward the end. “You just gave me whatever I was looking for,” another replies. It’s true: Worrall’s might be an everyday tale, but this performance is once in a lifetime.