Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday Afternoon in Jackson Heights: Theater for the New City Street Theater's "TALLY-HO! or Navigating the Future" at Travers Park

This afternoon we made it from Dumbo Books HQ in Williamsburg to Jackson Heights in 20 minutes thanks to just-in-time G and E trains going only six stations.

We did have a nice sweaty walk from Broadway up almost to Northern Boulevard to Travers Park, but we'd given ourselves an hour's traveling time so we were able to stop at the great neighborhood coffee bar Espresso 77 and get some iced tea.

We were at Travers Park to see Theater for the New City's award-winning Street Theater Company performing TALLY-HO! or NAVIGATING THE FUTURE, an exuberant, rollicking agitprop musical for the Great Recession. With a lively and talented cast, boisterous music and dance, the show satirizes the recent financial excesses that have led us to our current sad state of economic affairs.

With a righteous indignation and 1930s-style call for old-fashioned community organizing and social activism, TALLY-HO! hearkened back to the socially conscious spirit of the WPA's Federal Theatre Project and its populist shows like the Living Newspaper and The Cradle Will Rock.

In a sequence showing the mass poverty of the Great Depression (FDR is heard talking about "one third of a nation") and the salutary forces of the New Deal, the play deliberately evokes that spirit.

And where else can the angry nouveau poor get the catharsis of watching small children in the audience rush the stage to pelt the Madoff-like evil Wall Street manipulator "Bernie Tradeoff" with fake food?

And then get to see the mega-millionaire swindler get eaten by zombies (here called Toxic Assets) and end up as a digested seven-foot piece of shit?

Here's the summary of the production from Theater for the New City's website:
The musical is a morality play about how America, facing financial failure, must set a course through the uncertainty of what's to come. Two accountants—one clever and ambitious, the other sensible and caring—exemplify citizens gripped by our nationwide financial disaster. The status-seeking, flashier one jumps on the speculative bandwagon and prospers with each successively greater scheme. The steady, responsible one takes the low road, but the economy is at the mercy of the passions of the day. The innocent go broke with the guilty. Everyone is buried in a vast mountain of useless commercial paper and misinformation. There's hell to pay, with investors, financiers, and Ponzi addicts going head-to-head in a colossal food fight with seltzer squirting and pie throwing. The two accountants end up in the headlock of a burly muscleman who personifies History. He takes them on a 1930s adventure to witness how New Deal idealism is undermined by modern political canoodling.

The street theater troupe has been taking this around to neighborhood parks and other locales throughout the latter part of the summer. Today we were in a corner of the Travers Park ballfields, with a large audience - encouraged to come over by pre-play loudspeaker announcemnts in English and Spanish - with tons of little kids sitting in the front row.

People were sitting on plastic milk-bottle-type cartons, blankets, towels, the cement or, in our case, the Week in Review section of the New York Times (great op-ed piece on thirtysomething by our friend Porochista Khakpour). Lots of little kids, for some reason mostly blond-haired, are in front of us.

The first "street theater" we can recall seeing was forty years ago, in early August 1969, when we were 18 and watching our housekeeper's five-year-old daughter Jeanette. There was a ragtag troupe of multiracial hippie-ish kids who'd put on these colorful, loud (and to Jeanette and me, breathtakingly exotic) shows on the otherwise-deserted Brooklyn College campus for a week. We went enough so they said, "You and your sister should join us."

We thought it was kind of weird but cool that they thought Jeanette was our sister despite the difference in our races. Jeanette, who'd been born in Haiti, piped up: "He's not my brother, he's my cousin." Which is what she called us. Anyway, Jeanette and I were intoxicated by street theater but too shy to perform.

It's not surprising that the spirit of the late Sixties, as well as the progressive New Deal, hovers over Theater for the New City productions like TALLY-HO! TNC was founded in 1970 and so they've been around for our entire adult lives.

By now, they've brought superb professionism to street theater without losing the "street" ethos. The scene changes here, with the different backgrounds lined up against the face, were effected seamlessly, requiring a good number of sweating, hard-working company members, and what must be incredibly complicated logistics.

There were some wonderful songs in the show and the cast brought Broadway musical professionalism and elaborate production values to street theater. At about an hour, it's just the right length (especially if, like us, you didn't score a spot in the shade on a summer day like today).

This is a collective effort, but the actors playing the two accountants and Bernie Tradeoff (the chorus sings, "Bernie Tradeoff is the guy who wipes away our tears / Bernie Tradeoff will be with us for the next 150 years") were outstanding, as were some of the solo singing turns.

And there's surprisingly sophisticated social criticism here, like the Wall Street crooks' professed desire to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, along with broader comedy as when a grandma, cheated out of her lifetime savings, has a fatal heart attack and Bernie Tradeoff tells her complaining grandchildren, "That's a dead issue. . . go back to your charter school!"

When the personification of History takes the accountants back to the Great Depression and New Deal, young people get a good lesson and the documenting of extreme poverty (a schoolgirl about to faint says, "It's my sister's turn to eat today") and successful community activism, as when rural band together for "penny auctions" to rescue their neighbors' farms from the greedy.

It skirts being heavy-handed and instead seems full of genuine feeling. One line in that segment, a threatening "Anyone who buys a foreclosed place won't find life worth living there," brought a huge mordant laugh from people in the back of the audience.

We loved the show and appreciated the moments of audience participation, as when, à la Tinkerbell, our shouting out our different cell phone rings saves the accountants from being killed by the Toxic Assets. At the end, kids joined the cast members to dance onstage. You can find a real review from Matt Roberson at NY Theater, but here's its conclusion:
Tally Ho, or Navigating the Future, with its solid chorus numbers, sideshow aesthetic, and stirring tribute to the people of The Great Depression, rises way above what most have come to expect from outdoor summer theatre. More importantly though, it both teaches, and practices, the ever-important lesson that some of the best things in life really are free.

We are grateful to Theater for the New City for bringing street theater to regular people in places like Jackson Heights.

After the show, walking around 37th Avenue and Roosevelt Avenue, we remembered how much we've loved this neighborhood since some of our college friends moved here in the 1970s. Like a lot about New York, Jackson Heights is even more magical to us now.

No comments: