Damon Daunno and Patrick Vaill on Subverting Archetypes and Making ‘Oklahoma!’ Sexy
Damon Daunno wants your grandparents to come see “Oklahoma!” Now, before you think that the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic set right before the territory became a state, is your grandma’s favorite show, the Tony-winning revival is not a traditional staging. (Not to mention the unofficial hashtag is #thisoklahomafucks.)
But the show was super radical back when it first opened on Broadway in 1943 – and it is now too.
“This show was really progressive when your grandmother was a kid,” Daunno says. “And it’s just as punk rock as it was initially.”
What started as a student workshop at Bard College in 2007 evolved into a full production at Bard in 2015 to an Off-Broadway run at St. Ann’s Warehouse last year to a Tony award-winning run on Broadway, which ends Jan. 19. Patrick Vaill, who plays the misunderstood farm hand Jud Fry, started with the show as a student, while Daunno joined for Bard.
Sitting at a table at Sardi’s, Daunno and Vaill have an easy offstage relationship, very different from their super-charged onstage one. While Curly and Jud are considered to be two male archetypes – the “good” guy and the “bad” guy – who use their machismo to get the girl, Daunno and Vaill subvert any expectations with their performances.
“When I was a very serious 21-year-old, I desperately wanted to play Curly because I was blonde and I thought that’s what part I should want,” Vaill said. “I was sort of horrified by [the role of Jud] and was defiant. I freaked out because it seems so far away from anything that I was ready to admit I might understand.”
We sat down with Vaill and Daunno to talk about subverting gender archetypes in classic works and why this production of “Oklahoma!” is extra sexy.
Had you seen a production of “Oklahoma!” before doing this revival?
Damon: I think I saw it when I was in third grade. My hometown’s high school did a production of it and I vaguely remember that. But the only thing I really took away from it was actually the guy who was playing Jud seemed really cool.
Patrick: I’d seen the Hugh Jackman production when it was broadcast on PBS because my parents had seen it in London and told me about it.
You’ve both been with the show for a long time. How has the relationship between these characters evolved as you’ve been doing it?
Damon: It’s about animals sniffing each other out. You can play one minute and fight the next minute. I think there’s a serious curiosity about each other. There’s definitely an intensity of just physical chemistry — whatever that may mean — but displaced energies that they definitely share. From my side of things, it’s definitely not good guy/bad guy, hero/rival, any of those words. They’re definitely just full-blown human beings for better or for worse. I wonder if they’re some twisted version of each other and themselves.
Patrick: I was literally about to say. It’s like two halves, suddenly realizing, “Oh, there’s my other piece.” Some sort of doppelganger, almost quality. There was an early version of the dream ballet where we changed clothes onstage.
Damon: Full-blown strip tease.
Patrick: We threw our clothes aggressively at each other and then took each other’s undershirts off.
Damon: I miss that.
The smokehouse scene where Jud and Curly confront each other for the first time, is staged very differently and intimately in this production, starting out in total darkness and then using some creative camera work. What was it like creating that moment together?
Patrick: It’s at the real celebration of theatrical performance in that, all the things you can do with a space to tell a story starting from complete darkness where you’re literally just hearing specific articulated words to then blasting a close-up on that a hundred foot wall and then a song in the middle of it. It’s a full-blown 360-degree experience to do. It’s also my favorite part of the show. It’s always really nerve wracking because it’s so exposed.
Damon: We’re using handheld microphones during that scene, and I don’t remember how you feel but it feels like a vocal closeup as well. I think sort of old school surgeons with that magnifying glass thing that comes down. And I guess they still have that.
Patrick: I think of dentists.
Damon: It’s an extraordinary experience to work that closely at something. And I think that’s what the rehearsal process of it was too. When you get that detail that can actually become an extraordinarily freeing I feel.
Patrick: From form comes freedom kind of thing. I mean, we choreographed. Turn your eyes on this word. Blink twice here.
And you cry in it too.
Patrick: Yeah, or I have to try not to. I’m allowed to a bit.
Damon: That is one of Patrick’s super powers, I must say.
Patrick: In these times it’s easier and easier every day.
You really start to build an empathy for Jud in that scene, which is not something you see in every production. You also start to see some of Curly’s motives.
Patrick: The lights out in two moments of the play that I think are both moments that the audience thinks they know what happens. So they think this is a comedy scene between the two guys, and they think the scene with Laurey is assault. When you take out the lights and all you have is the language, you start to hear the words and you hear how much more complicated it is. Jud is a character that everybody thinks they know what his trajectory is to the story. But when you look at it in terms of just facts are facts, it’s like, oh wait a minute, why does everyone feel this way?
Damon: That also speaks to the thing of playing these archetypal characters in this quote new way. You look at the smokehouse just at face value actor-to-actor, and that was one of the first things was like, “Holy moly, Curly’s a monster.” I don’t think as much, but you know what I mean? There’s some serious manipulation going on. So that was a really interesting challenge to actually circumvent that. And how do I get involved? How do I actually get inside of this and empathize with this story? Nobody really talks to Jud. No one sits down and just has a conversation. It takes a dark turn..
You’re also playing with stereotypical notions of masculinity. Conventionally, both of these characters have been thought to epitomize what a “man” is. What does it mean subvert that?
Damon: Sex drives all of these characters. There’s sex and violence to all of these characters’ spines. I’m not a real puff up my chest, look at my muscles kind of fella. But I’m a slinkier fella. And I’m very comfortable in my hips, for example. It’s what I would consider like a rock-and-roll way like an Elvis or Mick Jagger. So that to me makes me feel sexy and powerful but goes against the traditional sort of macho men.
Patrick: There’s this kind of charge. You, me, and Rebecca [Naomi Jones, who plays Laurey] are aware of where the other one is at any given moment onstage that it is this kind of constant triangle that is going on. It’s not about masculine or feminine. It can happen in the smokehouse and it does happen that there’s this weird amorphous gender-fuck thing going on between these two guys. It does sort of meld into eroticism and then go straight into violence and then into territory and it’s all linked. But it happens also with the female characters, especially with Aunt Eller and Laurey. It’s non-gender performing this like the toxicity.
Jud and Curly are opposites and represent the farmer and the cowman, like in the lyric “The farmer and the cowman can be friends.” Do you see their relationship as mirroring the larger message of the production?
Damon: I don’t know. We’re presenting a lot of provocative material, and I think that offers up a very individual reaction to all that. So I wouldn’t say we have any sort of manifesto on one slant or another in terms of things to be taken from it explicitly. But certainly like classism and racism are some of the things we’re highlighting for sure. And so I think that separation, the farmer and the cowman. It took me a minute to really understand. Patrick could probably take me in a fight. And he’s hell of a handsome guy, like why, why would Laurey not go for him in this way?
Patrick: This play touches on so many sort of elements of the American experiment. The classism, racism, and sexism are all leaned into in our production. We’re not interested in cutting the bad parts of the apple to make it more palatable for today’s audiences. And we’re actually interested in showing the flaws that this country is built on and exploring. I think you do present something and people can see their own experience and draw the things that they are looking for answers from it. So I think all of those things do exist because it’s a really sturdy piece of work.
Have you had conversations with people who’ve seen and who maybe like more accustomed to more traditional ones in the response? What’s kind of been the dialogue?
Damon: I find the older generation actually is consistent in their excitement of theater. People are like, I have seen this show 75 times and this is the best one.
Patrick: And they’re really open to seeing things in it that they haven’t seen before. The resistance is personal. Like, “Oh my god I didn’t know this thing I thought that I knew actually has this in it.” But I think people are really excited by it. There’s this moment that you (Damon) probably can’t really see, but this is always my favorite thing. At the very top of the show, we all come out and they sit down and he sings, “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.” And then we all call and respond. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.” And then as it builds to the first “Oh what a beautiful morning” and the band comes in and this sort of warmth happens, you can literally see people’s shoulders start to drop. People start to smile and this kind of feeling of, I’m so glad that I’m in this room right now. You see that in the house and you feel it and it’s really intoxicating
Damon: And then smash cut to the last song. The last moment.
The lights are up on the audience almost the whole time. How does it affect you and your performance to watch them?
Damon: I love it.
Patrick: I love it too. Audiences are typically used to being able to sit in a dark and lean back and sort of be anonymous, but in the ours, you’re in the show, you’re in it. And we demand a lot of them and they’ve really been up for it, which is extraordinary and generous and exciting. It adds this sort of the 12th character to our show, which is the audience.
Damon: It’s challenging because it’s probably the regular reactions that every theater would have, but because there’s no darkness and perceived separation, it feels more personal. If somebody, as yawning in your view point, it might or you can affect you a little bit. It’s a different house every night. It’s fresh every night and there’s that culpability and immediacy and when everyone is super up for it, it’s like a rock concert.