Theater for the New City: spoofing local and national issues



Cast of “State of the Union”

It’s time to reserve your milk crate for 2 p.m. this coming Saturday, Aug. 2, on East 10th Street between First and Second Avenues, nearer to First. The one you sit on.

It could get you arrested, ticketed anyway. In fact, the opening line of the 2003 TNC summer street-theater production is a woman saying to a cop: “You can’t give a ticket to a pregnant lady because she’s sitting on a milk crate,” and the cop saying: “What’s your name?”

Mayor Bloomberg, are you listening?

Are you listening also, Mr. B, when the three young co-heroes of Crystal Field’s latest show, hightailing it away from the CIA, the FBI, the Homeland Security, and an assortment of religious nuts, try to hide in the Stoned Crab Dive Bar, a New York City smoke easy, but don’t have the $1 admission.

“Try your Metrocard,” one says. His buddy does, and it works. Of course, the tariff’s gone up to $2.

TNC stands for Theater for the New City, and every summer since and including the big-bang “Miss Liberty’s Bicentennial Party” of 1976, writer/director Crystal and her TNC players have toured the streets, parks, playgrounds of the five boroughs with free performances of a wild and wooly drama of civic and/or national malfeasance, starting — this year as every year — on East 10th, right around the corner from TNC itself.

Which makes “State of the Union,” Ms. Field’s newest fandango, the 27th annual TNC street-theater outdoor extravaganza. Its cast of hundreds — well, a couple of dozen — ranges in age from 10 (Michael Martinez, Justin Rodriguez) to (“let’s be kind,” says Crystal) 60.

“State of the Union” is in part a show about virtual reality, and virtually the only thing missing from it is the notorious 16 words about African/Iraqi uranium that have got George W. and his State of the Union speechwriters in so much trouble.

“No, those words are not there,” says Crystal, “because I put in, instead, the Ten Commandments. I figured that’s what it’s really all about” [“it” being Life].

She suppresses a giggle as she says: “I do have Bush coming up out of the toilet” — and in pilot’s uniform yet. Also in the toilet are Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Colin Powell looking for his road map.

TNC traveling street theater is a form that embraces music, song, smoke, masks, giant puppets, trapdoors, a 12-foot backdrop of hand-cranked moving scenery, and, of course, a certain degree of audience participation. The subject matter being what it is from year to year — existence in our time in the neighborhoods of this city and this meshugena world — most of the audience feels that it’s already in the show anyway.

Take the early sequence set in a hospital Emergency Room where everybody has been waiting for three hours and 40 minutes. Surely, dear reader, you know about that. A nurse finally materializes to announce: “Okay, everyone, time for insurance,” whereupon the company bursts into song: “If you don’t got insurance / You’re out of luck, / You’re really stuck, / You might as well be dead . . . “

A doctor somewhat out of Groucho Marx is interested only in his golf clubs, his vacation, and the back problems of his female patients. He’s played by TNC’s all-purpose pillar of strength Mark Marcante. Nobody has a genuine I.D. card. “Are you sure you’re Mrs. Finklestein?” the nurse says to a woman cloaked in a burka and veil.

The nurse is still checking the driver’s license, the Social Security card, the rent receipt, and the telephone bill of one old gentleman when said old gentleman shivers and expires right there in the Emergency Room. His name is given as Claude Pepper.

Claude Pepper! Why, Crystal, how wonderful! Claude Pepper (1900-1989), the unrepentant New Dealer from Florida, was one of the great men and great battlers for National Health Care, Social Security, world sanity, women’s rights, aging, cancer research, etc., in the U.S. Senate and, later, the House of Representatives, for 50 years.

Crystal Field draws a blank.

“I didn’t particularly think of that Claude Pepper,” she says. “This guy in the show is Bahamian. Now that you mention it, I do remember the Senator, but . . . “

He must have been in your subconscious, Crystal.

“Had to be,” she says. “Senator — congressman — that’s right.”

In a desert sequence, somewhere in Iraq or maybe Afghanistan, an FBI agent says: “Hey, I’d walk a mile for a Camel.” Crystal, no one since my father has said: “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.” She all but commits another giggle. “Well, it’s a saying . . . “

Once upon a time one of the heroes of the show would have been played by a downtown boy named Tim Robbins, but Tim Robbins, who broke in at age 12 with TNC, grew up to become a moviemaker, so now the three young men made insecure by Homeland Security in this show are portrayed by Craig Meade, Primy Rivera, and Alex Bartenieff, son of Crystal Field and George Bartenieff.

Their ethnically diverse mothers are played by Carmel Mathis, Jessie Ortiz, and Crystal Field. Terry Lee King is the sexy, nefarious Oil Queen. Michael David Gordon appears in numerous roles, one of them the FBI agent; he’s also a lead singer. At the keyboard of the five-person band, and composer of its vibrant music, is, as always, Joseph Vernon Banks.

“This year I wrote the wackiest play yet,” says Ms. Field, but she does not say it cheerfully. “We’re now in rehearsals, and it’s coming out that way. Because of the terrible situation we’re in, in this country, and it’s going to get worse.

“Everybody feels bad. I wrote the show to make people feel a little better. Somehow I’m able to get amusement out of the looting of a museum, or of a library, or a bombing . . . “

She lets it trail off. Then:

“At the top of the show is the line: ‘Don’t croak before it’s time to die.’ I thought: Let me start there — and end up, anyway, in virtual reality.”

With everybody planting a community garden, as they always do in Crystal Field’s street plays . . .

“As they always do, and always will do,” says Crystal Field. No uranium. No oil pipelines. No search warrants, no knocks on the door. Just peonies, marigolds, tulips — and a declaration: “WHOEVER SAID DEMOCRACY WAS EASY?”


Sat, Aug 2: East 10th Street at First Avenue, Manhattan

Sun, Aug 3: Peace Place Park, East 124th Street, Manhattan

Sat, Aug 9: Abe Lebewohl Park, St. Mark’s Place, Manhattan

Sun, Aug 10: Herbert Von King Park, Bedford/Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

Fri, Aug 15 (8 p.m.), Dino’s Wonderland Park, Coney Island, Brooklyn

Sat, Aug 16: St. Mary’s Park, 147th Street & St. Ann’s Avenue, Bronx

Sun, Aug 17: Travers Park, Jackson Heights, Queens

Sat, Aug 23: Stapleton Houses, 210 Broad Street, Staten Island

Sun, Aug 24: Prospect Park, Concert Grove, near Wollman Rink, Bklyn

Sat, Sept 6: Wise Towers, 89th Street & Amsterdam, Manhattan

Sun, Sept 7: Central Parl Bandshell, Manhattan

Sat, Sept 13: Tompkins Square Park, 7th Street & Avenue A, Manhattan

Sun, Sept 14: Washington Square Park, Manhattan

All performances except, August 15, start 2 p.m., weather permitting.