One of our projects in fourth grade was to write an autobiography. Mine was thin, and Miss Swenson graded me poorly.
I wish I could go back and revisit that assignment with an assist from Nature Theater of Oklahoma. In its new work, “Life and Times: Episode 1,” this New York-based ensemble relates the memories of one of its members from birth through third grade. How many memories are there? Sung to beautifully melodic music, “Life and Times” lasts 3½ hours. Now that would have impressed Miss Swenson!
Nature Theater has brought the piece to Walker Art Center for the weekend. It is an audacious attempt to mine the fine-grain minutiae of one’s life and transform it into drama. Whether you can endure the long sit — and some folks on Thursday night decided the two-hour first act had sated their curiosity — this work absolutely has the contours of art. Tedious at times? Exhausting? Yes and yes. But “Life and Times” manages that theatrical miracle of inviting each of us to reflect on our own lives. It works best as a portal to rediscovering our own memories — and in my case making me regret I put so little effort into that fourth-grade project.
Nature Theater uses as its libretto the transcript of a phone conversation in which one company member (Kristin Worrall) told another member (Pavol Liska) the story of her life. Director Liska used the stream-of-consciousness recollections as a verbatim text, with like, um, all the like, um, you know, verbal tics and, and, uh, I mean, con-, um, conversational pauses. I’m sorry, what was I talking about? Oh, right, the stuff, the show.
Three women do the majority of singing, on a bare white stage. They are joined later by three men, and occasionally musicians jump up (including Worrall herself, who plays flute and vibes). They engage in some rudimentary theatrical movement, but primarily they park and bark.
Worrall’s memories and insights create a universal testament to childhood — from her earliest glimpses of her parents to images of her living room, nursery school, kindergarten, friends. At one point, a singer relates how she remembers coming home one day and seeing her mother lying down for a rest, and how weird that seemed. This is totally unremarkable until we investigate why it is we, too, recall these small and inconsequential moments in our own lives.
How does the mind work? That’s what makes “Life and Times” such a curious piece of art. At another point, a singer notes that she kissed a neighbor kid and “that was the big news for the next month” in the household. Which reading group you got put in, where you sat on the bus, how much time you spent in the car — all small things that unlock our own heads.
The whole thing rides on Robert M. Johanson’s simple and marvelously tuneful score. There are echoes of Velvet Underground, Galt MacDermot and “The Rocky Horror Show” in Johanson’s chord structure, and he modulates these repeating themes with high points, including one operatic moment about the embarrassment of discovering at a later date that you wore the same dress two years in a row on picture day.
Lest you think the 3½ hours is long — and it is — consider that Nature Theater only got up to third grade in this first episode. The total package is intended to cover 24 hours. That is a lot of life.