at Randolph Street Gallery

September 18 and 19

The farmer lives in a hollow tree with a slew of orphans. The farmer has lost his shoes and is calling every police department he knows, obsessively describing them. He was on his way to a funeral in Grand Rapids when he lost them. He interrogates every orphan. The feed-store manager, a friend who speaks in impeccable German, tries in vain to get him to stop disgracing himself.

“I assumed I had made it clear–I’m not a farmer,” the farmer says, tired of hearing what everyone says of him. “I haven’t farmed a thing in almost seven years. I don’t even own a farm anymore. I don’t work on a from, I don’t live on a farm. I live inside a hollow tree. So I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop calling me a farmer because it really brings up some bad implications which I would rather not get into at this moment.” With that the farmer stomps out, never to be seen again in this show. And hey, we’re only midway through.

Robert Metrick’s O Klahoma, or the Farmer in the Astral Plains is a wacky, wondrous thing. Featuring several local performance artists, including Iris Moore and Matthew Goulish, it plays with expectations, metaphors, and stereotypes in a wry, quick-witted manner that’s also delightfully entertaining.

Metrick, who wrote, composed, and directed O Klahoma and plays the farmer, constantly inverts images of commonplace things and extends metaphors beyond the ridiculous to the sublime. Using language, slides, and quirky juxtapositions, Metrick devastates one cliche after another. This farmer, for example, lives in a hollow tree like an elf. The tree isn’t a house or a home, we’re told, more like an orphanage. In fact, it’s jammed with orphans.

The orphans don’t know each other, but the farmer says he knows them “through and through.” A slide reads: “‘I’ve come to know them very well, extremely well, as well as I could,’ boasts the Farmer.” But then Metrick winks with the next slide: “‘At least as far as it’s possible for one person to really know another,’ which, in those days, was not very far.”

In this multileveled play, everything is on the one hand, but then it’s on another too. The audience works in the present tense, but the story–which took place long ago, “in those days”–shifts back and forth from present to past. The realities shift from dimension to dimension. This quality’s disturbing, and it’s also frighteningly familiar.

We see the players placed about the stage like pieces on a game board while a series of extraordinary slides using the language of agriculture and USA Today-style graphics chart cow-pile yields, farm acreage, and other familiar yet mysterious things. Is any of this really quantifiable? Do the charts mean anything? Do any charts mean anything? Because these points are not so obvious at first–and then are incredibly, embarrassingly obvious–they’re unnerving.

Adding to the work’s hallucinogenic quality are its multiple points of view. The goat (Katy Hoffer) has a lament, the farmer’s stepchild (Goulish) has an indictment, the pony (Joan Dickinson) has an epitaph, and the 17-year locust (Moore) has a return, of course. The farmer himself barely talks. Clearly not a farmer, he’s trapped by both the audience’s and the other characters’ expectations. He keeps telling us that what’s important are his shoes–remember them?–but we’re still waiting for him to tend the fields.

The goat, who seems trapped in the past, feels abandoned. The locust wonders why she returns to a place where she’s treated so badly, and even betrayed: in her story the farmer takes care of her, then turns on her time after time. The pony’s a mire of self-indulgence. And the stepchild, whose initial impression of the farmer appears to be favorable, feels cheated by the emptiness of the legacy he’s left. “Wherever you go, I can only follow . . . as far as my chain will take me,” he says.

“Stop inflicting us with your bad childhood–in the name of every culture,” Rowina Davenport (Jamirte Trott) cries out to the stepchild. “Haven’t we suffered enough?”

This may all seem confusing–and it is, in a way. It may seem absurd–and yes, it is. It may also seem deadly serious, given Metrick’s take on individual impotency as a kind of poison in our society–when in fact it’s deadly funny. It’s also very, very good.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brenda Block.