Let the Sunshine In

Writer: 
April 1, 2007
Give me down to there: peace, love, and  antiwar anthems staged for a modern audience

Give me down to there: peace, love, and antiwar anthems staged for a modern audience. Megan Morr

There is something uniquely American, uniquely 1960s, about Hair: The American Tribal Love/Rock Musical and the hippie lifestyle that it portrays while promoting an antiwar message.

So it’s interesting to note that when it was performed at Duke this winter, the reins were entrusted to Dominik Fungipani, a twenty-four-year-old exchange student from Germany.

Fungipani grew up in Plettenberg, in the west of Germany, south of the Ruhr. As a young student, he loved acting and directing, and he joined a local theater company at age fourteen. He acted in school plays. He directed two, including Terry Pratchett’s Mort, which he and classmates had to translate because the theater adaptation was available only in English. He directed a short film. After high school, he completed his state-required civil service and interned as a “techie” at a nearby theater before enrolling, in 2003, in Berlin’s Freie Universitat, where he chose to focus on Nordamerikastudien, or North American studies.

When he arrived at Duke last fall, he began looking for opportunities in theater. He signed up for a listserv, and soon received an e-mail message from student-run theater company Hoof ’n’ Horn soliciting applications for a director for Hair. After interviewing with the group’s executive council, he was offered the job.

Fungipani’s straight, light brown hair is pushed back over his ears and falls on his shoulders. It’s longer than he usually wears it, and he says he plans to cut it after the show. “My dad told me I should cut it before,” he says. “I told him, ‘Dad, the show is called Hair.’ He said, ‘Good point.’”

For Fungipani, there were obstacles to really understanding the play. Though his focus at Freie is on North American studies, he didn’t have a firm grasp on Vietnam-era U.S. history. “I knew it was groundbreaking, provocative, defining a generation,” he says of the play, “all the things you might read on the back of a book. I had a vague idea of the plot, a better idea that this was a show with meaning.”

But perhaps more significantly, he says, from the standpoint of a director, he had never before worked on a musical.

On a Wednesday night in mid-January, Fungipani sits in the Sheafer Theater on the lower level of the Bryan Center, waiting for the show’s final dress rehearsal to begin. The sparse audience there to take in the show-before-the-show consists of crew members, Hoof ’n’ Horn executive-council members, and a few international students to whom Fungipani had extended special invitations for the evening. The theater is a black box, with a few rows of seats on two sides, raised slightly above stage level. As the 9:00 curtain call approached, cast members roamed the theater in wigs, flannel, and denim, smoking flavored cigarettes. They approach audience members, addressing them directly, “Hey, Sunshine,” and offering a hit. The air is smoky, both from the cigarettes and from smoke piped in by the production crew.

“If we catch on fire, the exits are that way,” actor Dina Graves, who plays Steve, tells the audience, pointing to the corners of the room. “Don’t take pictures. It steals your soul a little bit.”

The show seems to begin organically, its first song arising from the floor as cast members wander onstage.

Fungipani appears to be enjoying himself. As he and producer Josh Posen, a senior and president of Hoof ’n’ Horn, will later explain, the show is 99 percent of the way there. This last night is just a final run-through. There shouldn’t be any significant changes. Most of the feedback given to actors after the show will be positive.

But in the front row sits senior Russell Hainline, a member of Hoof ’n’ Horn’s executive council who, given his experience with musicals, has offered to lend some suggestions. One moment he is scrawling notes furiously on a small pad of paper. The next he is whooping and making exaggerated claps.

Throughout the rehearsal, Hainline moves about the theater’s hundred or so seats, to see what the performance sounds like or looks like from various angles. Occasionally he’ll cue actors to speak up or show more emotion. During a chorus line, he signals for more exaggerated movements, and yells out, “Sell it!”

During the first act, Fungipani comes onstage briefly as Hubert, a character time-transported from a later era curious about the hippie phenomenon. “I have two lines,” he had explained earlier. “It’s fun and a little bit of a Hitchcock thing.”

Backstage, others worked to make sure the costume transitions, lighting, and music ran smoothly. Junior Tim Antonelli started off as the show’s rehearsal pianist, but took on a larger role as the show evolved. As music director, he plays piano and manages the seven-piece band that provides the show’s distinctive rock-musical soundtrack. He says he’d never seen Hair before, but enjoys the music. The band, he says, “meshed from the get-go.”

During intermission, Hainline converses with Fungipani and Posen. He has some concerns about the volume of the singing, and gives last-minute pointers on where actors roaming the audience should sit or stand to avoid being in the way of the audience’s sightlines.

As for the famous naked scene (in the Duke version, the actors stripped to their underwear), Hainline says that Claude, played by senior Jonathan Schatz, needs to command more attention when singing. He worries that some of the actors ripped off their clothes too fast and had been more distracting than necessary. “If everyone is doing it really slowly, it won’t be like that,” he tells Fungipani. “You need to let Schatz establish himself.”

Hair deals with issues of race, gender, and sexuality, but it is, at its heart, an antiwar musing. The play features protests, a peaceful “Be-in,” a strobe-light-accented battle dream sequence, and one of its lead characters faced with going to war when his draft number is called.

As a product of the 1960s, Hair was written to address the Vietnam War specifically. But over the years, James Rado, one of the show’s co-creators, has tinkered with the book to remove some of the specific historical references and make its themes more general. The version of the show performed commonly these days is a 1990s edit.

“This is a play with a political issue,” Fungipani says. “It’s antiwar. Let’s face it, it’s anti-Vietnam War. I think you can apply it to Afghanistan and Iraq, Iraq most obviously.

“The battlefields might have changed. They might have different names, but there are still battlefields out there. As my producer put it, this is not a play to lean back and passively enjoy.”

Audience members “don’t necessarily have to come to the same conclusion and agree,” he says, “but if they go home and talk about it, that would be nice.”

Schatz, who plays Claude, says that he initially had trouble relating to the show’s characters. “It’s a generation that in many ways, we are very removed from. People are more conservative today. In some ways, this is exactly what this generation needs.”

As an actor performing the show forty years after it was written, as a college student trying to recreate a feeling that emerged from the youth of his parents’ generation, he says, “The only way to do it is to play the role as truthfully as you can.”

The rehearsal wraps up just before 11:00. The group—cast and crew—form a circle outside the theater to listen to comments from Hainline, Posen, Fungipani, and various crew members. There were a few snafus tonight: A costume change was missed, an actor’s voice is going out, and during one song the band and the actors were out of sync. But overall, it was good, says Fungipani. Yet as peace and love personified by the hippie era were celebrated onstage, war continued to take its toll on modern battlefields.