From Bard to Broadway
Oklahoma!, directed by Daniel Fish and starring Patrick Vaill ’07 as Jud, earned eight Tony nominations, and won best musical revival and best featured actress. Its Broadway run has been extended through January 19, 2020 and national tour will begin in Fall 2020.by Jennifer Wai-Lan-Huang and James Rodewald ’82 in the Bardian, Summer 2019
Twelve years ago, JoAnne Akalaitis, director of the Theater Program, invited Daniel Fish to direct a student production. Patrick Vaill ’07 recalls Akalaitis telling Fish he could choose any play he wanted. “Over time it was revealed that the show would be Oklahoma!” says Vaill. “There was a lot of excitement. People were surprised.”
The surprising choice, in Fish’s hands, meshed perfectly with the ethos of the Theater Program under Akalaitis. “She fostered an incredibly vibrant, hardworking, interested group of students who just loved doing this work together,” says Vaill. “It was thrilling to be a part of.” Fish reimagined the patriotic, upbeat 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein original as a morality tale for our time. Three-quarters of a century ago, America was at war, and it responded to the musical’s celebration of pastoralism, the charm of country folk, and the idea that “Everythin’s goin’ my way.” Since then, our tribes have become less homogeneous, the tension between the haves and the have nots continues to increase, and guns are less icons of the frontier than instruments of violence and terror. The realism, the immersion, and the sensitivity of the acting in Fish’s Oklahoma! give modern audiences—who hear the very same words and tunes—a very different experience than theatergoers of the ’40s had.
Auditions for the student production were held just before winter intersession. Vaill had hoped for the part of the handsome cowboy, Curly, who gets his sweetheart, Laurey. He was cast instead as Jud Fry, the brooding farmhand, whose own desires for Laurey are violently thwarted. “The idea was that we were all—the audience, the actors—in a room together to hear and to tell this story,” says Vaill. “When we performed it in Theater Two [now LUMA Theater] at the Fisher Center in 2007, with an all-student cast, it was clear to me and to those who saw it that we were involved in something very special.”
Vaill was raised in Manhattan, and his parents often took him and his sister to the theater. “I fell in love with it as a child and harbored a secret desire to pursue acting,” he says. “It was a magic trick that was completely amazing to me, breathing the same oxygen as the people doing that.” He had a similar instant connection with Bard. On his first visit to the campus, Vaill felt a deep kinship with the College. He applied Early Action, was accepted, and never considered another option. “I felt this was the place I had to be. I am very pleased to say I was correct. I flourished.”
Vaill’s decision to major in theater was a less straightforward process. “Moderation loomed over me. I couldn’t be cavalier about my major. I tried on many different possibilities—religion, Victorian studies, literature, art history—until I finally realized that theater was the only major I was passionate about. It was during Parent’s Weekend, after Vaill took his parents to Akalaitis’s production of the Euripides drama Orestes at the Fisher Center, that he told them about his decision. “There’s something very personal about telling someone that you want to be an artist, so I was very nervous about it. They said they absolutely understood my decision after seeing the play we’d just seen.”
After graduation, Vaill went on to act in several off-Broadway shows in New York City and with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., working on stage professionally for three years before pursuing his MFA in acting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The first role Vaill landed after graduate school was on the Lincoln Center stage in Shakespeare’s Macbeth directed by Jack O’Brien and starring Ethan Hawke as the Scottish king. “It was an incredible experience. I played Graymalkin, one of the witches’ familiars. I leaned very heavily into the supernatural and played those scenes as a demonic being.” Vaill then played Ernst Ludwig in the Roundabout Theatre’s national tour of the Broadway revival of Cabaret directed by Academy Award winner Sam Mendes. Then, eight years after performing it as an undergraduate, Vaill learned that Gideon Lester, Fisher Center artistic director for theater and dance and director of Bard’s Theater and Performance Program, had commissioned a professional production of Fish’s Oklahoma! for the Fisher Center’s 2015 Bard SummerScape season.
“I sent Daniel an email about how exciting it was and that I would love to audition to play Jud again if they were holding auditions,” says Vaill. “He wrote back that day saying he had already given my name to the casting director as someone whom he wanted to see.” Vaill auditioned and was cast as Jud. “As a senior at Bard, I was largely going on impulse. There was something about the character that I absolutely understood instinctively. Over the years, with more training and experience, I have found the tools to express it.” The production, Vaill believes, developed in a similar way. “I think it had distilled in Daniel’s mind. His understanding of the material and what he wanted to do with it is more purposeful, more fully realized. The student production was the kernel of what came later.”
In his review of the 2015 SummerScape production, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley described Vaill’s Fry as “a paranoid but oddly understandable stalker.” Most earlier portrayals presented the character as muscular, brutish, and simple; a caricature of the marginalized working stiff. Vaill played him, in Brantley’s words, as a “pale, weedy man with the kind of grudge that lands sociopaths on the front page and in prison.” The complexity Vaill brings to the role, and the empathy he evokes, are crucial to the success of the reimagined musical.
The immersive, groundbreaking production garnered rave reviews, and Fisher Center executive director Bob Bursey and his staff began working to bring it to New York City. In fall 2018, the Fisher Center production transferred to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, where it had a sold-out six-week run, and it opened on Broadway at Circle in the Square Theatre in April. “We knew that something special was happening again,” says Vaill.
A hallmark of Fish’s production is the absence of any preconceived notions about Oklahoma!—seeing the play for what it is, and revealing the script’s deeper meanings. “Jud is often played as a very scary, mean brute of a man,” says Vaill. “What Daniel and I have tried to do is look at the words on the page with fresh eyes to see who this person really is. Not to judge him before he speaks. If you look at Jud’s song ‘Lonely Room,’ it is about dreams. He has dreams, wishes for things. Beautiful words and images come out of him. It’s not what you’d expect to come out of the mouth of a ‘dirty farmhand.’ He expresses this desire to be seen, this desire to be loved, and this desire to be held that is incredibly human. When you strip him bare, what you’re left with is someone who just wants love so badly. And who hasn’t experienced that?”
Post Date: 06-24-2019