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'Search: Paul Clayton' Explores Bob Dylan's Dark Past

Larry Mollin’s ‘Wiki musical’ probes the world of a forgotten folk legend.

We open the scene on the Rolling Thunder Revue, 1976, with Bob Dylan poised to play his encore. Stepping out from the memory is a young man in a dress shirt and vest with slicked-back hair, someone who belongs to another era entirely. And this outcast with sadness in his eyes sets the scene for us for what is to be quite an unusual story:

"Fact: In 1976 Bob Dylan dedicated the encore of his Rolling Thunder Revue to Paul Clayton. Assumption: 99.9% of the audience had no idea who Clayton was and that continues to this day. Tonight you are going to find out."

More of a musical revue than a true musical, Search: Paul Clayton by Larry Mollin is the story of the man who was once the most recorded young folk singer in America, structured through an exploration of his Wikipedia page. The show takes us through Clayton's childhood and graduate education in folk studies, but the true heart of the play is his relationship with Bob Dylan, from first meeting to final betrayal. Even in those opening scenes, Dylan is always lurking in the background, singing along with Paul and his parents and sinking tendrils into every element of his friend's life.

"Friend," of course, is far too simple of a term. Clayton was Dylan's mentor when he first moved to Greenwich Village in the '60s, introducing him to other folk music legends and influencers. Clayton taught the young singer about discovering and re-purposing classic folk songs, and Dylan repaid the favor by putting his copyright on anything in sight, including quite a few of Clayton's songs. And of course, Paul Clayton was madly in love with Bob Dylan, and Bob knew it.

Search: Paul Clayton captures the uncomfortable mixture of affection and aggression between the two men, who genuinely care for one another even as Dylan poaches songs and Clayton makes romantic overtures that he knows are unwanted. It is a complicated mess of moral grays and predatory behavior, perhaps best captured when the two singers start doing impressions of each other. The cast and crew, meanwhile, do a great job turning this murky history into a streamlined, heartfelt narrative about the desperate desire to be loved.

And of course, there's the music. Constantly infusing every moment of the play, these beautiful ballads will leave you holding your breath every time someone strums a chord. Many of the actors are musicians first, and it shows. The score of the show stays true to the music of both the era and the particular regions visited--the Village but also New Orleans and rural Virginia--with soulful odes like "Who'll Buy You Ribbons When I'm Gone," "House Carpenter" and "House of the Rising Sun."

So how do you portray characters who were true and important historical figures, though some more remembered than others? Jared Weiss embodies all of Bob Dylan's classic behaviors without feeling like a carbon copy, a cute and charming young man and calculating competitor all in one. Peter Oyloe's Paul is a fascinating mixture of sympathetic and alienating, taking on a complicated legacy that ends in drug abuse and suicide with understated grace, though it takes him a while to find his voice.

Jaime Babbitt, Michael Lanning, Ereni Sevasti and Allan Harris fill out the rest of the Village community, playing neighborhood organizers, other legendary folk singers, girlfriends, parents and more. And though it is sometimes to difficult to remain invested in these characters' stories when the actors keep appearing onstage in other roles, these four talented singers and guitarists hold their own in every number.

Set in an intimate theater with the small stage limited to projected backdrops and a few blocks and stools, and audience members seated at tables to enjoy the piece (though the servers moving through the space delivering drinks throughout the show are distracting), Search: Paul Clayton recalls the experience of a '60s music club that any of the characters might have played at. It is a deeply moving story that fits well with the melancholy folk ballads and rousing anthems that bring it to life, and a lesson not to forget the ambiguous origins from which our musical idols come.

Search: Paul Clayton plays at the Triad Theatre through May 21.

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