"This Land": The bard of a people in troubled times

The America of the 1930s that Woody Guthrie wrote and sang about, the nation conjured in Greg Carter's musical theater piece, "This Land," is a place few of us alive today can imagine.

In this revision of a 1992 show Carter staged in Minneapolis, the sights and sounds of that America are sincerely, heartily evoked via puppets and live music. But "This Land" is also stubbornly diffuse in structure and sketchy at relating Guthrie's life to his writings.

Guthrie Country is one of cataclysmic dust storms that send legions of hungry, homeless "Okies" and others on the road in search of land and work.

It is an America without Social Security benefits or worker-safety laws, without the kind of federal disaster relief that will rebuild parts of Florida in the wake of recent hurricanes.

It is an America of despair and bigotry, rage and activism, conspicuous wealth and blatant, grinding poverty.

"This Land" strikingly expresses that nation in the raw, sculpted faces and big, callused hands of the vivid papier-mâché puppets that portray hoboes and farm people, miners and other folk.

Several dozen Guthrie songs are performed here with conviction and twangy beauty, under the expert direction of Edd Key. (A native of Kentucky, Key clearly knows this music in his bones.)

Yet with its poorly organized, sometimes enigmatic excerpts from Guthrie's prose writings, its lengthy quotations from John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and a determination to raise a slew of issues (pacifism, racism, workers' rights, et al.), "This Land" circles and strays, clocking in at about 2-½ hours.

It works best as an illustrated song cycle. One couldn't ask more from the 11-member cast's hoe-down versions of the jaunty anti-fascist anthem "Bound to Lose" and other "hoots," Key's rendering of the masterful protest song "Pastures of Plenty" and Kirsten Hopkins' silvery-voiced singing of plaintive ballads.

Included in the homespun musical tapestry are numbers ("One by One," "At My Window Sad and Lonely") with recently unearthed lyrics by Guthrie, set to music by modern recording artists Billy Bragg and Wilco. Less melodically rustic than such Guthrie odes as "Union Maid" and "This Train Is Bound for Glory," they make an interesting counterpoint.

Also laudable: the sets and puppets designed by veteran scenic artist Carter and several others.

Piles of suitcases symbolize a generation of migrants and Guthrie's footloose nature. In one captivating vignette, a small puppet of a farmwoman stands in an open suitcase outfitted as a farm kitchen, gazing on as her home slowly fills with sand.

Other resonant images are created by mobile scenic contraptions that represent a row of field hands stooping to pick crops and a towering factory loom.

Craig Wollam's lighting adds more visual textures: a circle of flickering votive candles for the song "California Stars." Incendiary words erupting into flames.

One gleans from "This Land" Woody's leftist political views but little of how his personal saga meshed with the times. (More anecdotes like those about Guthrie's 1941 Seattle visit with Pete Seeger, and his writing "This Land is Your Land" in response to "God Bless America," would help.)

In the end we do hear the essence of Guthrie's philosophy. In his own words, he was a "photographer without a camera," a communal bard who could honestly say to his America, "[My] words are not my private property. I borrowed them from you."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Now playing

"This Land," by Greg Carter, is produced by Strawberry Theatre Workshop and runs Thursdays-Saturdays through Oct. 16, Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., Seattle; $15 (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com; information: www.strawshop.org).