“Lots of things happen to folks.” Those were the words that haunted me as I left the dark, sexy, weird, brutal new Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!” the other night—words as banal and deadly and all-American as Donald Rumsfeld’s “Stuff happens.” They’re spoken by Aunt Eller (Mary Testa), the part played by every budding character actress in seventh grade, now reimagined as a patriarchal enforcer, a corn-shucking variation on Aunt Lydia, from “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It happens near the end of the show, and she’s speaking to her niece, Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones), who, in Daniel Fish’s revisionist staging, is in a white wedding dress spattered with blood. Curly (Damon Daunno), Laurey’s new cowboy husband, has just killed his romantic rival, the loner farmhand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), whose corpse lies nearby. Aunt Eller counsels the traumatized Laurey to be “hardy,” and, when Laurey interrupts—“I wisht I was the way you are”—Aunt Eller says, “Fiddlesticks!” Testa delivers the line stone cold.
What follows is a quickie show trial of Curly. If you haven’t seen “Oklahoma!” for a while, you could be forgiven for forgetting that it ends with a trial scene. The whole thing is rushed and perfunctory—because Curly is the good guy, and the town elders have decided that he shouldn’t spend his wedding night in jail. A federal marshal (an unsmiling Anthony Cason) objects that it “wouldn’t be proper” to free Curly, but he’s overruled. In most productions, the trial flits along like farce, with the audience as eager to see it through as Aunt Eller, so we can get to the happy ending. But Fish slows the sequence down to a horror show, with the characters packing heat and trading conspiratorial stares—like something out of Tarantino, or maybe Jordan Peele. Once Curly gets his acquittal, the cast breaks into a reprise of the opening number: “I’ve got a beautiful feelin’ / everythin’s goin’ my way!” You feel sick.
Of all the dark innovations of Fish’s staging, the trial scene may be the most chilling. Fish’s revival strips the mid-century pluck from the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic to reveal what was twisted and erotic at its core. Curly, a happy-go-lucky cowboy, is now a manipulative crooner who knows the dangerous charm of his guitar; Jud is a porn-obsessed incel who looks like Shaggy from “Scooby-Doo”; and Laurey is a woman at war with her own libido, simultaneously drawn to and repelled by both men, even though she’s little more than property to be won. (A literal auction of women—or at least their pies—precedes the trial.) Usually, Jud dies by accidentally falling on his knife; here, he allows Curly, who has already tried coercing him into suicide, in Act I, to shoot him point-blank. As Fish told Cynthia Zarin last year, “There’s something to me so American about the last scene, the moment of instant amnesia, of how quickly we move on. It’s not, for example, very German. The Germans eat their history. We have an unwillingness to look at our own crimes.”
As I watched the scene, I couldn’t help thinking about another Off Broadway hit from last fall that has made the unlikely move to Broadway: Heidi Schreck’s brilliant autobiographical play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which was just named a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Schreck, who comes from the Samantha Bee school of exuberant exasperation, begins the show by reminiscing about her years as a Reagan-era teen-ager in Washington State, giving speeches about the U.S. Constitution for prize money in American Legion halls. “I really did believe there was no greater democracy on the planet, and that this document was the most genius piece of political writing that had ever been created,” Schreck told me a few months ago.
As an adult, she began questioning her reverence for the document: Whom does it leave out? What would happen if we scrapped it and started over? Onstage, she revisits her family’s history of domestic violence—and the way that the Constitution has failed to protect women’s bodies and rights, along with those of ethnic and sexual minorities. She tells us about Castle Rock v. Gonzales, a 2005 Supreme Court case in which a Colorado woman sued her police department for not properly enforcing a restraining order against her abusive husband, who subsequently murdered their three daughters. Schreck plays some audio from the case, in which the Justices, examining the due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, spend more time talking about the meaning of the word “shall” than about Gonzales. The Court ruled against her. “Scalia ultimately decided that ‘shall’ did not mean ‘must,’ ” Schreck says. “Which is confusing because Scalia was a devout Catholic.”
Since seeing the two shows Off Broadway, I’ve felt that “Oklahoma!” and “What the Constitution Means to Me” are companion pieces, despite being culled from opposite ends of the American theatrical spectrum—the Golden Age musical and first-person performance art. Both are about the frontier, about the bending of justice, and about how America’s origin story isn’t as sunny as it’s cracked up to be. (Both, I should add, are fabulously entertaining and funny.) Like the Coen brothers film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Fish’s “Oklahoma!” tears the romance from the myth of westward expansion, just as Schreck strips the “Schoolhouse Rock!” corniness from American governance. In both cases, the fairy tale is a coverup, obscuring bodies and blood. Did Jessica Gonzales get any more justice than Jud Fry? And is “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” any less deceptive than “We the People”? It’s notable that both shows originated in 2007, late in the disillusioning George W. Bush years—“Oklahoma!” as a Bard College production with a student cast and “Constitution” as a ten-minute piece at an East Village variety night—and hit a chord in the Trump era. In between, under Barack Obama, came “Hamilton,” which envisioned America’s founding as expansive and cool, setting the course for inexorable progress. A legacy, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton reminds us, is “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” But what if the soil is diseased?
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“Oklahoma!,” which premièred in 1943, probably should have creeped us out all along. It begins with one cowboy planning to buy his girlfriend’s matrimony for fifty dollars, while Aunt Eller advises Curly that, if her niece tries to fend him off, he should “jist grab her and kiss her.” In those cringey moments, which Fish menacingly foregrounds, I was reminded of Schreck’s stories of her great-great-grandmother Theressa, a mail-order bride who emigrated from Germany to Washington State in 1879. “The reason Theressa was considered a ‘good’ immigrant is because at the time the male-to-female ratio in Washington State was nine to one,” Schreck tells the audience. In her research, she found contemporaneous newspaper accounts, from the logging town where Theressa settled, filled with gruesome headlines of domestic violence, such as “Husband Stomps Wife’s Face with Spiked Logging Boots.” Theressa died in a mental institution, at thirty-six, of “melancholia.”
Cut back to Aunt Eller, at the end of “Oklahoma!,” telling Laurey, “You cain’t deserve the sweet and tender things in life less’n you’re tough.” Like Theressa, Laurey, as portrayed by Jones, is suffering from what might be called melancholia. She seems to know that none of her options are good—she’s aroused yet scared by Jud, and annoyed yet secure with Curly. Laurey is hardy, but she’s also trapped—a frontier woman whose value, like Theressa’s, lies in wedlock. On occasion, Fish has her sing in a low green light, as if communicating directly from her subterranean desires. Jones doesn’t crack the slightest of smiles as she sings one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s daintiest tunes, “Many a New Day”:
Many a red sun will set,
Many a blue moon will shine
Before I do.
Both shows have unsettling stories to tell about statehood. “Oklahoma!,” based on the 1931 play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” takes place in 1906, when Oklahoma was on the cusp of becoming the forty-sixth state. That year, Congress passed the Oklahoma Enabling Act, allowing the Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory to enter the Union under a single-state constitution, which it did the following year. (Oklahoma’s nickname, the Sooner State, refers to the settlers who preëmpted a land run in 1889 and claimed some of what was then called the Unassigned Lands, though the area was inhabited by relocated Creeks and Seminoles.) The musical is set in Claremore, in Indian Territory, and its characters anticipate statehood with such bright lyrics as “Territory folks should stick together” and “Brand new state, gonna treat you great!” At Curly’s trial, of course, the territory folks do stick together, and you’re left to wonder at whose expense.
Schreck’s native Washington—the Evergreen State—was admitted into the union earlier, in 1889, ten years after her great-great-grandmother came from Germany. “Remember that thing I said about the male-to-female ratio in Washington State being nine to one?” Schreck says late in the play. “Yeah. That’s bullshit. That’s what my history teacher Mr. Berger taught me at fifteen, in my Pacific Northwest History class.” Of course, there were women, of the Wenatchi and Salish tribes, but, in the new nation that Washington was joining, they didn’t count. Marriage—the white kind—was a transaction essential to statehood, one for which Theressa was bought and then left to wither at Western State Hospital.
Lots of things happen to folks.