‘Bamboozled’ beats the devil at his own game



TNC’s traveling street theater turns 35

BYOB. Bring your own box. Or milk crate. Or egg crate. Or suitcase. Or folding chair. Or something, anything else to sit on. Of course if you have a window ledge to lean out of, that’s great. And of course TNC supplies plenty of milk crates for the populace at each show, which won’t cost you a penny. But there’s almost always an enthusiastic overflow SRO crowd on all sides, so BYOB if you have one.

TNC is Theater for the New City — a multi-temple of creativity on First Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets. This is the 35th year that Crystal Field, the Eleanor Roosevelt of TNC, has written and will direct their ever-changing but always deliciously We-the-People’d summertime street show that tours this city’s five boroughs. Admission free, weekends during August and September.

Every TNC street piece has a hero — a young man who, in Crystal’s words, “starts out knowing nothing about what’s going on, and ends up knowing everything that’s going on” — in the community, in the nation, in the world.

The 2011 entry — an operetta modestly titled “Bamboozled, or the Real Reality Show” — has for its hero a nice overworked postman whose daily route takes him through Jackson Heights, Queens. Normally he delivers happy mail (birthday greetings, marriage invitations, birth announcements). But these are troubled times, and all the news is bad for ordinary working people, young people, old people.

In his despair, he succumbs, like Faust, to the sinful temptations of Diablo Hysterico (the “Rock ‘n’ Roll King of the Underworld”), but finally — remembering that, as a line for the press has it — “all good postmen ring three times,” our un-bamboozled postman does the right thing and saves not only the world, but Jackson Heights.

Aha, I say to Crystal, I see you’ve been reading James M. Cain, or maybe re-seeing that old movie with Lana Turner and John Garfield.

“Yes!” says Crystal.

But his postman only rang twice. In fact, there wasn’t any postman at all, in the book or in the movie. Only death.

Silence from Crystal. She is somewhere right now in Upstate New York, in her hideaway cabin in the woods where, this summer as every early summer for 35 years now, she fleshes out the season’s five-borough blast.

I’m in New York, telephone at ear, computer on lap.

Opening night for “Bamboozled” is opening matinee, of course: Saturday, August 6, 2pm, weather permitting, directly adjacent to Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue, between 9th and 10th Streets).

The cast of 35 will be enhanced by a five-piece band, music by Joseph Vernon Banks, giant puppets, masks, smoke, moving scenery on a nine-foot-high scroll called a “Cranky,” group singing by the audience, dance by everybody — and I think you can count on a pop-up performance by Crystal Field herself who was once in a memorable Elia Kazan movie called “Splendor in the Grass.”

There has probably been street theater of one kind or another since the cave man. But for Crystal Field, who had apprenticed at Andre Gregory’s Theatre of the Living Arts in Philadelphia, street theater began in a serious way during the nationwide late-1960s Angry Arts movement against the war in Vietnam.

At a mass rally in Central Park (“I still have a poster in my bathroom,” says Crystal), she and Peter Schumann, Big Daddy of the Bread and Puppets company, did a two-character anti-war piece on Schumann’s flatbed truck.

Schumann has performed at TNC every year since Crystal and then-husband George Bartenieff founded that enterprise in 1971.

She was not yet writing street theater. But in 1972, a Village poet-playwright-architect named Robert Nichols asked her to direct “The Expressway” — a piece he’d written about the desire of Robert Moses to blast a six-lane super-highway through Washington Square Park.

“We did it on Lafayette Street, outside Joe Papp’s Public Theater. It was the first show ever done by the Public Theater. People were sitting on windowsills, standing in doorways, on the sidewalk, people everywhere. I then kept directing for Bob Nichols, until one day he said: ‘I’ll start a play and you finish writing it. I’ll write the first three lines of a song, and you finish it.’ ”

Then Nichols went off to spend the rest of his life in Vermont. So what’s a nice girl to do? Pick up a pencil and write.

The breakthrough, or breakout, was with this nation’s bicentennial 1976, when Crystal wrote — “book, lyrics, everything” — and directed, her first straight-from-the-hip street play (“Mama Liberty’s Bicentennial Party”). It may be remembered for, among other things, the performance “of Haldeman or Ehrlichman, I don’t remember which,” by an 18-year-old neighborhood kid, Timothy Francis Robbins, who had been with TNC since he was 12. You and the Oscar people know him as Tim Robbins.

“The actors in our street plays are more than actors,” says Crystal. “They’re actor-writers and community activists. Every one of our shows has a hero like this postman, and every show is consciousness-raising. There’s always a happy ending, the neighborhood always wins, but there’s also the warning that you have to stay alert, or the Devil will get you. But in ‘Bamboozled,’” she says with a laugh, “the kids beat the Devil at Pokemon.”

These TNC street shows require a lot of research and on-the-job training; not only in the present case for the Postman and the electric-guitar-wielding Devil, but for everybody in cast and crew. The audiences? They’re basically the same — enthusiastic — year after year. But the last couple of years have been more troubling. “You can see it when you go into a neighborhood,” says Crystal. “Can see all the closed stores. Not even the Vietnam War hit this hard. There’s a quietness now. They hate all the authority figures. It’s sort of like people are on hold.”

In short, they’re un-bamboozled. And waiting.

“Bamboozled” Schedule

Sat., Aug. 6 at 2pm, in Manhattan. At Theater for the New City (E. 10th St. at 1st Ave.)

Sun., Aug. 7 at 2pm, in the Bronx. At St. Mary’s Park (14th St. & St. Anns Ave.)

Sat., Aug. 13 at 2pm, in Manhattan. At Jackie Robinson Park (W. 147th St. & Bradhurst Ave.)

Sun., Aug. 14 at 2pm in Brooklyn. At Herbert Von King Park (btw. Marcy & Tompkins Aves.)

Fri., Aug. 19 at 8pm in Brooklyn. At Coney Island Boardwalk (W. 10th St.)

Sat., Aug. 20 at 2pm in Manhattan. At Wise Towers (W. 90th St., btw. Columbus & Amsterdam Aves.)

Sun., Aug. 21 at 2pm in Manhattan. At the Central Park Bandshell (72nd St.)

Sat., Aug. 27 at 2pm in Brooklyn. At Sunset Park (6th Ave & 44th St.)

Sun., Aug. 28 at 2pm in Queens. At Travers Park (34th Ave., btw. 77th & 78th Sts.)

Sat., Sept. 10 at 2pm in Manhattan. At Tompkins Square Park (E. 7th St. & Ave. A)

Sun., Sept. 11 at 2pm in Manhattan. At Washington Square Park

Sat., Sept. 17 at 2pm in Staten Island. At Stapleton Playground (Broad St. & Tompkins Ave.)

Sun., Sept. 18 at 2pm in Manhattan. At St. Mark’s Church (E. 10th St. at 2nd Ave.)