Hair in the time of a drug war

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By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman, Reporter

HAIR’s opening act starts with an orgy where everyone is high on drugs and angst. The lead hippie, Berger (played by George Schulze), says “fuck you” at least three times in a sentence, and with high energy, takes off his pants and approaches the audience. The next two hours at the theater follow Berger’s vibe: fun filled, free spirited, restless, and high on drugs and energy.

It has to be noted that despite the unrelenting drug use in the musical — Repertory Philippines’ final offering for its 50th anniversary season — it does not advocate drug abuse. “The way we are portraying it in this musical is the use of drugs in the context of the ’60s,” said Hair’s director, Chris Millado, when asked to contextualize drug use in the musical considering today’s controversial “war on drugs.”

“The musical does not say that everybody should go out and have drugs, but what it says is that during that time, drugs were used by this group of hippies to enhance their search for a new consciousness,” he expounded during a Q&A session after the opening night gala on Nov. 17.

“What we need to understand about how the use of drugs was celebrated in this musical was that during those times, drugs were looked at as something that expanded their senses. It was the time before drug rehab [and] experimenting [with] different cocktails, drugs, and everything else, was part of their search for consciousness — the search for radical consciousness,” he added.

The hippies, said Mindy Perez-Rubio, president and CEO of Repertory Philippines, were a peaceful group. “They did not [do] aggressive drugs, they did not do cocaine, and they only liked mind-expanding drugs like marijuana and LSD. They stuck to that. I came from that hippie times so I know,” she said.

Set in the 1960s, the musical — its full title is Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical — is an exploration of hippie culture (“peace, love, freedom, happiness”). Fully immersed the era’s essence, James Rado and Gerome Ragni (book and lyrics) and Galt MacDermot (music) took what was then happening on the streets of America put it on stage — consider that the musical debuted off-Broadway in 1967 and was in the Broadway theater the following year, in the middle of the “Summer of Love.”

But amidst the high energy and powerful vocals of the Repertory Philippines production, it badly needed clearer singing to let the audience follow what was going on and to fully appreciate the lyrics of iconic songs like “Age of Aquarius,” “Let the Sunshine In,” and “I Got Life,” which tell of the idealism and advocacies of the hippies.

The second act includes a drug-induced hallucination experienced by Claude Bukowski (played by Markki Stroem who alternates in the role with Topper Fabregas), a young man torn between pleasing his parents who want him to enlist in the army in the middle of the Vietnam War, or joining the peaceful flower power movement.

One can consider the hippies as having been the millennials of the late 1960s (who happened to always be high on marijuana and LSD). They were peaceful rebels with a cause and were against war, discrimination, and hatred. Many years have passed since then, but the angst of that generation lives on.

“There is a sense of hatred and greed that are supposed to be dated, but are trickling back into what’s happening today,” said actress Maronne Cruz who plays Jeannie, a pregnant hippie who hopes it was Claude who knocked her up (at a time of “free love,” she doesn’t know who the father is). “A lot of us can relate, especially the millennials who have strong feeling of dissent toward the ills of the world. It’s these similarities that we share today: we both want to end racism, oppression, and hatred. We want to be equal, but the difference now is that we have a digital battle against fake news,” she said during the Q&A session.

Hair will be shocking for some, bewildering for some, eye opening for some, nostalgic for some, amusing for some (well maybe just a few), perhaps, even upsetting for some. But whatever emotion it might generate, it will generate emotion. That is what theater is all about,” said Repertory’s artistic director, Joy Virata, in a program note.

My millennial seat mate said she felt like she was watching a Sunday noontime variety show, while I thought that it seemed kitschy, but then again, that’s just the way the hippies were. We both agreed though that one of the highlights was when two tourists, dressed in “normal” clothes, preached to the audience that everyone should be more accepting of someone’s preferences, be it his or her hairstyle or sexuality. This scene received considerable applause from the audience.

Mr. Millado said that they had to “take the wisdom of hindsight, and take the dream of young people who were hopeful. We wanted to portray innocence, and these were a group of babies in the garden, who finally found a point, the end, of their innocence. It’s a question each generation asks for itself, how much has your struggle amounted to?”

Repertory Philippines’ Hair has performances until Dec. 17 at Onstage, Greenbelt 1, Makati City.