BY CLAUDE SOLNIK | As New York City looks at ways to turn streets into pedestrian walkways and more, Theater for the New City is doing its part to turn streets into a stage.
The theater, at 155 First Ave., on Aug. 3 debuted a new musical on E. 10th St., complete with portable stage, puppets, choreography and trapdoors — as well as a cauldron full of miscalculations.
The theater took its show, “No Brainer or the Solution to Parasites,” very literally on the road, with book, lyrics and direction by Crystal Field, Theater for the New City’s co-founder and artistic director, and music composed and arranged by Joseph Vernon Banks. This new musical, with about 50 performers on and off stage, travels to locations citywide through Sept. 15.
The show played on Sat., Aug. 10, at St. Mark’s Church, at E. 10th St. and Second Ave., and will play on Sat., Sept. 7, at 2 p.m. at Washington Square Park and Sun., Sept. 15, at 2 p.m. at Tompkins Square Park.
“It’s a rip-roaring musical that portrays our road to national madness as a bad trip to Hades,” Field said of the show, which is slated to tour parks, playgrounds and streets across the five boroughs.
The company includes 30 actors, 10 crew members, five musicians led by composer Banks at the keyboard, three assistant directors, two stage managers and just about everything except a partridge and a pear tree.
“The music varies in style from bossa nova to hip-hop to musical comedy to classical cantata,” said Field, who appears in a small role as the spirit of St. Nicholas Hill. “The play is a bouncy joyride through the undulations of the body politic.”
Michael David Gordon plays Joe Black, a social-service worker and housing specialist, while T. Scott Lilly plays Mr. T, a villain whose identity isn’t difficult to determine. Justin Rodriguez plays an undocumented immigrant.
“People come forward, a doctor from the Bronx, a nurse from Bensonhurst, a bra sales person from Astoria, a teacher from Jamaica, a preacher,” Field said of the opening number, “Census.” “All these people want to be counted.”
We watch the varied mosaic of New York City assembled in front of audiences complete with music and choreography and an undocumented resident.
“Eat with chopsticks or your fingers, or you use a knife and fork,” Field said, reciting lines from the show. “We’re one and all New Yorkers. We live and love New York.”
Although political theater may seem more a description of campaigns and debates than stage, street theater is part of a tradition that has made a difference Downtown.
Field first worked on street theater with Robert Nichols of Bread and Puppet Theater and Peter Schumann, the originator of the Judson Poets Theater at Judson Church.
Field directed a musical Nichols wrote called “The Expressway,” seeking to stop construction of a superhighway that Robert Moses planned to plow right through the heart of Greenwich Village. The musical was a success and likely helped save the Village in the process.
“He wanted to build an expressway that connected the West Side Highway with the East Side Drive,” Field said. “It would have gone straight through Greenwich Village and Little Italy. They would have had to destroy all the homes there. We fought against it and won. This street-theater piece, which was an hour-long musical, was a big part of the protest against that highway.”
Field helped launch Theater for the New City in the East Village, while continuing to direct, and then write street-theater musicals in an enduring summer tradition.
In addition to humans, various gods make appearances in this year’s musical, including Mr. Pluto, played by Mark Marcante, Mrs. Garlic, portrayed by Cheryl Gadsden, and Monsieur X., played by Terry Lee King.
“Mr. T. gets into the cauldron and drinks from the cauldron full of parasites of doom that get into his brain,” Field explained.
In this show, cast and audience travel to Hades, a place underground with a huge cauldron, filled with mistakes made throughout history.
“It’s a cesspool of historical crimes and errors,” Field said.
Although Field initially directed shows, she wrote her first street-theater musical in 1976 around the theme of the country’s bicentennial, titled “Mama Liberty’s Bicentennial Party.”
“You know who was in it? Tim Robbins among other people,” Field said. “He had a featured role. He played a local young man, the hero of the play.”
TNC’s street theater, while it’s meant to be entertaining, spotlights issues, whether it’s how immigrants are treated or funding for the arts.
“It’s in the tradition of commedia dell’arte, which was always political,” Field noted. “Commedia was hysterical, full of satire and acrobatics and lots of joy.”
Producing a new musical every year isn’t done overnight.
“I write it all year long,” she said. “I have a little drawer in my kitchen cabinet that I reserve for my street-theater notes.”
After two weeks of improvisations and workshops with the 50-member cast, to see what they could do, Field and a few key staffers headed Upstate to finish the script. She phoned in lyrics to Banks, who composed and played songs back over the phone.
“We discuss it,” she said. “He tweaks it. When I come back, we have three weeks of rehearsal.”
Banks has worked with Field on these musicals for 11 years, after she worked for 11 years with Mark Hardwick, who went on to compose the music for “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” which played on Broadway, and “Oil City Symphony,” an Off-Broadway hit.
“Both of them were very much inspired by street theater,” Field said.
Ralph Lee, the famous maker of gigantic puppets that became the core of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, also worked on street theater.
“After five years, he suggested we do a parade,” Field said. “He had big, 6-foot puppets sitting in his studio. He suggested I do a parade. We started the Halloween Parade.”
TNC uses a device they call a “cranky” that is 9 feet high by 12 feet wide, serving as a kind of scroll that can be moved to provide settings for 10 scenes.
“It takes five people to run it,” Field said. “It runs on two rollers.”
TNC rents a 26-foot-long truck that it uses along with a Ford Ranger, transporting people, a portable stage, cranky, step units, set, costumes and production personnel. They rented a van from CC Rental for the crew.
The production is funded with the help of the City of New York, New York State Council On the Arts and others.
“The rest of it is by people,” she said of the production, which costs about $55,000. “We raise money for the street theater from our audience and our donors.”
Field took a moment to repeat a few lines from a song about this play’s concept of this cauldron of miscalculations in hell or Hades.
“A place where all the bad times of the past are cast away, history is cleansed and the planet lives another day,” Field said. “I’m sure your housing problems will end up there, as well. They call it hell. I call it Hades.”
TNC presents the show around the city, but not during inclement weather.
“When it rains, we don’t perform,” she said. “If it rains, we go to the site and wait an hour to see if it stops. If it stops, we perform. We have no rain dates.”
TNC focuses on this project each summer, building, rehearsing and preparing a production as the centerpiece of the season.
“It’s very expensive. It’s our whole summer program,” Field said. “We never have enough funds. We’re always looking.”
Theater for the New City’s street theater runs through Sept. 15, with performances across the city. For more information, call 212-254-1109 or visit www.theaterforthenewcity.net.