The FantasticksLong Wharf Theatre, October 7 to November 1
I was first introduced to The Fantasticks, of all places, by the Guinness Book of World Records. Even then, some thirty years ago, it held the record as the longest continuously performing play amid the less effulgent lights of New York's off-Broadway Sullivan Street Theatre. A few years later, my father did me the courtesy of taking me to see this old standby and, what is perhaps strangest of all in the microhistory that exists between The Fantasticks and myself is my not having had the pleasure of seeing it again since then.
This is no small matter when considering a play with this kind of pedigree. Any proper New Yorker knows that up until The Fantasticks' closing on January 13, 2002, some 17,000 performances later, a trip down to the Sullivan Theatre, adolescent in hand, was a rite of passage for parents seeking to bestow upon their kinder the kind of cosmopolitanism that Broadway show attendance bequeaths. Unlike today's overproduced albeit entertaining extravaganzas for children and teens—from The Lion King to Wicked—The Fantasticks recalls a quieter time, a more intimate encounter, and, yes, a far, far more sophisticated experience than any childhood viewing can properly take in.
Long Wharf's current production of The Fantasticks' recognizes this all-too-literary quality of the play. This production features a distinct set of innovations in the dramatic interpretation: the play's narrator El Gallo is recast as an illusionist; the environ is Rocky Point, an actual amusement park in Warwick, Rhode Island, that has been closed for over a decade; the thematic thrust is the carny atmosphere (recalling weirdly enough Carousel, of all things!). But all seems almost superfluous for a play that is so obviously about theatre and its illusions. This is not a criticism of director Amanda Dehnart's decision to relocate the play's traditional pair of homes with gardens separated by a wall through which the separated lovers whisper their sweet nothings to one another. The conceit of moving the action into Rocky Point is a sound one, , despite the strange geographic dynamic of the self-same wall and gardens sitting somewhere within or nearby the lonely amusement park. Indeed, one feels the abandonment of the park in the play's set design.
But it is a strange location for other reasons because the very weirdness of the arrangement underscores what is so fascinating about The Fantasticks as a play. When it first opened on May 3, 1960, reviews were mixed at best and despite poor initial attendance, the production stayed on eventually building itself up into—what exactly? This is the question that couldn't help but nag as I compared my middle-aged experience of the more than solid performance delivered by cast and musicians, director and set designer, with that of my dimly remembered early teen years. In watching, I recalled the frankly disturbing character of the play, its illusion-shattering comparison between the happy ending of the first act and the far more hardened sentiments of its second act, musically expressed with alliterative harshness: "Without a hurt the heart is hollow."
But watching The Fantasticks this time around opened up an entirely new vista for me, one leavened not only by personal experiences of pain and disillusionment, but a much expanded knowledge of arts traditions. The Fantasticks is notable for how much it turns to classical Western literature for its moorings: there are references to Greek and Roman mythology and history, Dante Alighieri, Washington Irving, and James Barrie. But the stage belongs to Shakespeare, and not just any stage. No, notwithstanding references to Othello, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet, the play that really stands behind The Fantasticks—but receives nary a mention--is The Tempest, which delivered the now hackneyed but in the case of The Fantasticks all-too-applicable revelation "that all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."
Tom Jones' libretto, as a consequence, is really part of another strand of Western culture. While it makes pretense, perhaps a little too presumptuously, to be a part of the tradition of great playwriting—The Fantasticks is, in fact, far more than another Kiss Me Kate—there is no arguing that, as musicals go, the philosophical sights it sets are enormously high. By stripping down as musical from the Broadway marquee hits it was trying in some ways to emulate—the Long Wharf production features eight actors, one piano, and one harp, and a simple set design, making it one of the easiest plays to stage regionally –Jones' libretto can focus on the very theatricality of theatre. The experience is distinctly of a piece with Brecht's alienation effects, from the narrator's proleptic announcements to the highly stylized acting ("See, see, we're acting!" this production, like every other version of it, screams).
As a result of this minimalism, The Fantasticks can't help but be a distinctly postmodern play, a label I assign in the most intense and complimentary of senses. Behind El Gallo's sleights of hand and the washed-up Arthur's comic manglings of Shakespeare, young Matt's sunny effusions and even younger Louisa's starry-eyed exclamations, and their fathers' soft-shoe, shuffling duets (excellently rendered in this production), the worm of literary deconstruction eats away at the play's philosophical foundations. The easy reading is that the pretend happy ending of the first half is an illusion of moonlight and our penchant for story-telling, an illusion that the harsh glare of the sun and life itself dissolves. But this thesis is so theatrically presented, and The Fantasticks is, if anything, utterly self-conscious of it play-ness, that it is impossible to see how life can be anything other than actors strutting the stage. It is in that sense a remarkable play, a Worm Ouroboros, that eats its own tail endlessly The Fantasticks strives to escape its own theatricalism through philosophy—that there is such a thing as "real life," which delivers real hurts from which we gain an "true" education and deeper understanding of love—but never really can, offering us either empty slogans about real life or, dare I suggest, a more "Matrix"-like understanding of the epistemological nut that Kant and his phenomenological successors have still failed to crack. Namely, what we perceive is life and it may all be an illusion, but swim on we must. And that reason alone is enough to see The Fantasticks.