Surrey With the Fringe Cast

REVIEW: James O'Keefe gets on his high horse in 'Oklahoma!'

August 25, 2021

James O'Keefe isn't used to the spotlight.

The Project Veritas founder, known for his undercover exposés, usually needs anonymity to do his job. That was hardly the case on Saturday, as O'Keefe rode a horse up the hill of Mount Rouge Farm belting the opening bars of "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'."

For the past few weeks, O'Keefe has traded his hidden camera for a body mic to star in an immersive, outdoor production of Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic tale of love and community in a territory on the verge of statehood. It's the latest offering from Brian Clowdus, a veteran director who specializes in "immersive site-specific theater."

Mount Rouge Farm has everything you need to immerse yourself in the frontier musical, which follows cowman Curly McLain (O'Keefe) in his quest to woo local beauty Laurey Williams away from the menacing farmer Jud Fry. Audience members watch the show from plastic lawn chairs—or, for a few extra dollars, a VIP, front-row picnic table. Those who arrive early can sample local barbecue and ride horses while interacting with the cast, who broke neither character nor a sweat while working the crowd on the 97-degree day.

An unnatural ability to withstand the heat isn't the only thing uniting the company. The actors and actresses are, for the most part, political outcasts in the theater community. Some are outspokenly pro-Trump, while others are simply wary of the leftward drift of the American theater. But they all lament the increasing politicization of the arts.

"The cast just wants to create art and is tired of things being overly political," Clowdus told the Washington Free Beacon. But while the director is quick to say he's not trying to create "conservative theater," he can't help but notice some parallels between Oklahoma! and our present political moment.

"It's a show about people who, against all odds, are fighting for their freedom and for what is right," said the director.

Clowdus, who was sporting a "Trump-DeSantis 2024" tank top at Saturday's matinee, is not shy about sharing his political views. But unless you know the cast members' backstories, you'd be hard-pressed to find political commentary in this production. Whatever new spin Clowdus and the cast put on the classic musical is entirely theatrical.

Austin Mirsoltani brings both relatability and intensity to Jud, usually portrayed as a brooding, hulking villain. In this production, the farmhand is more a modern loner than a Western dark man, always on the verge of tears or some kind of psychotic break.

O'Keefe is a fine Curly, making up for his occasionally shaky vocals with an earnestness that brings a welcome softness to the cocky character. He plays best when putting the moves on Julie Trammel's Laurey, whether in the lighthearted "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" or the more intimate "People Will Say We're In Love." One of the more veteran actors in the cast, Trammel stands out as the tragicomic farm girl and delivers the most consistently solid performances in this production.

Jennifer Crews and Anthony Watson steal the show as the flirtatious Ado Annie and her determined suitor, Will Parker. The pair makes the best use of the immersive staging, with Watson dancing on picnic tables and Crews serenading male audience members during "I Can't Say No." With his strong voice and comedic timing, Watson—a former Olympic skeleton and bobsled racer—makes it hard to believe this is the first time he has ever appeared on stage.

The mix of theater veterans and newcomers added to the authentic energy of the show almost as much as the straw underfoot and the goats bleating in the background. Like the acclaimed 2019 Broadway revival, Clowdus's Oklahoma! sheds the polite schmaltz of the 1955 film adaptation and gets right at the gritty, racy core of the show. Staged in a barn that looks like it's about to collapse and set against the rolling Virginia hills, the result is a theatrical experience that everyone will enjoy.

Which is exactly what Clowdus is going for.

"I don't care what your beliefs are," the director told the Free Beacon. "I think theater has the power to bridge the divide in our country if you just let go of politics, set aside your differences for three hours, and be reminded of how we're similar."

That attitude is rare in most circles these days. It's certainly rare in the theater, where even progressive darlings like Lin-Manuel Miranda find themselves apologizing for not being woke enough. Broadway, like Washington, is all-consumed with politics, and it's making people miserable.

Clowdus wants to fix that. "My goal is for every person in the audience to leave this production with a sense of hope," he said. "Because I see so much despair on both sides of the aisle."

It's a goal he shares with the show's lyricist. Oscar Hammerstein II, some 70 years ago, called it "a modern tragedy that despair has so many spokesmen, and hope so few."

Oklahoma! is playing at Mount Rouge Farm Thursdays to Sundays through September 5.

Published under: Theater Reviews