Los Angeles

Lin Hixson, “Hey John, Did You Take the El Camino Far?”

1804 Industrial Street

Lin Hixson’s Hey John, Did You Take the EI Camino Far? combined musical comedy with serious narrative and was refreshing in every way—deeply emotional, formally striking, sexy, and silly. The text of the piece, written by Hixson, Molly Cleator, and Valerie Faris (all three were also among the performers in this large-scale collaborative work), was developed from ten short stories by Hixson; it concerned the marriage of a Vietnam veteran, John, a Midwesterner whose war experience includes the covert murder of his colonel in retribution for atrocities the officer has forced his men to commit. When John returns home to go to college, he meets and marries a 19-year-old coed, Laura, and eventually burdens her with the knowledge of what he has done. The intensity of his sense of loss of innocence makes him try to steal her innocence too, through physical and emotional cruelties .

Intermix this story with a remake of the 1963 musical Bye Bye Birdie, in which an Elvis Presley-like figure is drafted into the army, and you have an idea for a potent live piece. The narrative was deconstructed in a number of ways—it was told and sung, and Laura was played by four women simultaneously, dressed in identical black wigs and ’60s skirts. The character’s naiveté and helplessness in the face of her husband’s grief and guilt were strong themes, and the work’s tone was innocent, guileless, as if the story were being told by a teenager. The performance technique was one-dimensional; no attempt was made to conceal the fact that these were not professional actors.

The Bye Bye Birdie remake took over in the powerful second section, which again underscored Laura’s naive view of love, marriage, and war through a twist on found themes in the original musical. The back wall of the theater, a warehouse space with an indoor loading dock for a stage, rose to reveal the street outside, which eventually filled up with singing girls in convertibles, the Venice High School Cheerleading Squad, and, as “Lucky Loud” (the “Birdie” role), actor Lance Loud on a motorcycle. The scene finished with the cast lip-syncing a song from the Birdie score with the refrain, “We’re Gonna Be on Ed Sullivan.”

We are familiar by now with the device of using films and TV shows as referents to establish a common ground of knowledge and feeling between artist and audience. Hey John turned familiar images from the early ’60s into metaphors for innocence and gullibility about the world, whose actuality it exemplified with the Vietnam War and its spiritual consequences. Critics of such works as this complain of “bad theater” with the trappings of an “amateur talent show,” but Hey John in fact posits the resemblance of “bad theater” to common patterns of life. So enormous is the effect of mass media on consciousness that some lives are actually lived as if they were corny musicals: Laura is unprepared for the shattering reality of her marriage because she lives in a dream world cooked up by musical comedy.

Interestingly, while Laura acted out her processed dreams, so did Hixson, Cleator, Faris, and the others, like children rehearsing the musical they have just seen. There was something ironically affectionate about Hey John, as if it were saying, “Those dreams may be chintzy, but they were ours.”

Linda Burnham