Playwright Larry Mollin has opened a lost passageway for boomers, to a time that both liberated and frightened the stuffing out of us.
If we’ll recall, those of us who entered our pre-teen years in the early 60s and exited as – most of us – pseudo adults circa 1970, the time was so fraught with its ratcheting up of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, that after some silly years in the 70s of disco and literal money- burning via rolled-up bills for snuffling cocaine, we donned business suits and morphed into a new species called “yuppies.”
The 60s was never the elephant in the room. There was no elephant.
And then slowly, as the decades buffered us from our youthful stupidities, we’ve began to excavate the kitchen midden of that era, item by item, examining each with a renewed sense of wonder.
First we unearthed the Vietnam War — the tragedy that inspired our elders to make cannon fodder of every last draft-worthy male in our country — as books, novels, and lectures streamed forth. Next we re-discovered hippie attire, marijuana as a certifiable medication and a tame recreational drug, and biopics about 60s icons such as Jim Morrison, Ray Charles, and Tina Turner arrived in theaters. Now, at last, we’ve seized hold of an old relic we’ve avoided because it tugs so fiercely at our heartstrings, we fear it might unravel us.
I speak of folk songs.
For his new play, now running until August 9 at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, and directed with bold polish by Randal Myler, Mollin focuses on a folksinger well-known in his time, now a mere footnote regarded chiefly for his mentorship in the early 60s of that supernova, Bob Dylan.
Born in New Bedford in 1931, Paul Clayton, played by Peter Oyloe, jammed at home with his musical, quarrelsome mother (Jaime Babbitt) and aloof father (Stephen G. Anthony), who divorced when he was 12. The young Clayton followed his bliss to UVA in Charlottesville, where he majored in folklore, mining the hills and “hollers” of Appalachia for forgotten songs.
By the early 60s in Greenwich Village when he met Bob Dylan, fresh from Minnesota and dying for a break, Clayton had already recorded 11 albums with major record labels. He coached Dylan in the ancient art of “borrowing” from old melodies, making them better with the twist of one’s own talent, then copywriting the new work to gain one’s own royalties. Thus Clayton’s “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons?” (taken from an old-as-the-hills and none-too-commercial “Who’s Gonna Buy You Chickens?”) underwent Dylan’s brilliant rewrite “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”
Mollin, within the parameters of our own evolved age, drop-kicks Clayton’s forbidden love for the young and vibrantly hetero Dylan, who bobs and weaves away from all overtures, yet hangs with Clayton until he’s been properly elevated to the spotlight.
At the gorgeously refurbished Playhouse, still redolent with freshly-milled wood, and under the artistic direction of MJ Bruder Munafo, the Village folksinger-cum-protest era is brought to life with no more than a platform, guitars on stands, and a curving screen that shimmers with projections of city lights, newspaper headlines (“3000 Beatniks Riot In The Village”), and backgrounds of the shabby New York streets that housed such iconic nightclubs as Café Wha, Kettle of Fish, and The Gaslight.
A group of talented actor-singers has been assembled: Ms. Babbitt, in addition to playing Clayton’s mother, also incarnates Village den mother Carla Rotolo. Mr. Anthony is both Clayton’s dad and another lost figure of the era, Dave Van Ronk, whose grim homage to New Orleans street life, “The House of The Rising Sun,” was first hijacked by Dylan then turned into a mega-hit by the Brit rock group The Animals, basically — and unintentionally — cutting Van Ronk off at the knees.
Ereni Sevasti plays Dylan’s early-Village-days girlfriend Suze Rotolo, and also the woman who steals him away from Suze, none other than the great Joan Baez. Performer Chic Street Man resurrects another forgotten figure of the Village scene, the Rev. Gary Davis and, whenever Chic joins the ensemble, a new level of soul, blues, and church-style reverence propels audience members to clap in time and shout “Halleluiah!”
Jared Weiss tackles the young, irrepressible Dylan, singing with the gravelly sound that shocked a nation raised on crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Paul Anka, a radical new style that Joyce Carol Oates later described, “as if sandpaper could sing.”
Was the early Dylan a thief and a rotten friend? Mollin makes a convincing case for that. But it wasn’t only gay Paul Clayton who had fallen in love with him. An entire country of under-aged, substance-starved Americans made Dylan a prophet and, later, a rock and roll superstar.
Arguably Dylan’s first ballads were stolen and reformatted, but in swift order he unfurled original lyrics on the level of a modern-day William Blake, such as:
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far from the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
– Mr. Tambourine Man, 1965
Another star of “Search: Paul Clayton” is musician and composer Fred Mollin, picking away at guitar and banjo in the shadows, and lending rich textures to the production as musical director.
This show will thrill boomers willing to take a dip in the bathos of our youth, and for succeeding generations who’ve added their own unique layers to the midden.
And now let us root in old boxes for Cat Stevens, Donovan, Buffy St. Marie, and Judy Collins on vinyl and 8-track cassettes, then see if we can find machines on which to play them.
“Search: Paul Clayton” 7:30 pm, Wednesdays–Saturdays through August 9. $50; $40 seniors; $30 students. For mature audiences only: sexually explicit, adult language, and scenes that depict drug use. For more information and for tickets, visit mvplayhouse.org or call 508-687-2452.