The classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma!"played at the Overture Center last night, and we were in the audience. I'd always heard about this musical. I remember being taught to sing a few of those songs back when I was in junior high school, long ago. But I had no idea what the story was, other than that it took place in Oklahoma. Based on the songs, I assumed it was a clean-cut love story. I was surprised to learn it was all about sexuality. There was one young woman who withheld her sexuality and another who gave it away freely. Each of these women had one man who loved her in a worthy way and another who loved her in a dark and slimy way. The sexually withholding woman's story was played for drama, and the sexually free woman's story was played for comedy. The characters' stories interweave through the many long scenes, until the predictable ending eventually arrives. The high point is a surrealistic ballet, the drug-induced dream of the sexually withholding woman, whose fears of rape are elaborately dramatized.
What did any of this have to do with Oklahoma? What was Oklahoma, the place, supposed to symbolize? It's the woman's body, territory that men want to move into and settle and plow. So in the end, when they are shout-singing "Oklahoma!" the real word is something they didn't put in song lyrics in 1943.
So where did the nice young virgin buy her drugs? From the Persian peddler, Ali Hakim. What do you do with an old play with a big, politically incorrect ethnic character? They played it broadly for laughs, another surprise.
Who was the most annoying person in the audience? I don't know. It was a big audience. But I'm going to nominate the old man who smuggled in a bag of potato chips and crunched on them quite audibly. You know how loud your own crunching sounds to you and how you think it's only this loud because of the way the sound waves are conducted though the bones of your skull and jaw? You're delusional if you go from there to thinking that it's inaudible to others. And chewing slowly is not a way to turn down the volume. In case you thought it was.
If you're going to eat potato chips in the theater, you might as well chew them normally. The offense is exactly the same. And, perhaps, if you've got a big ethnic stereotype in your play, you might as well play it broadly, the way it would have been played 60 years ago. Trying to make it more subtle and psychologically complex only calls more attention to it. But that's where the analogy ends. While you can't cut a major character out of a play, you could have left that bag of potato chips at home.