Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunday Afternoon in the East Village: Theater for the New City presents “Bamboozled, or the Real Reality Show” at St. Mark’s Church

Nobody does street theater like Theater for the New City, which is why we're so grateful that we managed to catch the very last performance of Bamboozled, or the Real Reality Show, the typically hilarious, incisive and infectious summer theatrical confection cooked up for the 35th year by director Crystal Field and the venturesome company of performers, musicians, and highly-skilled behind-the-scenes crew.

Theater for the New City's topical, satirical summer productions have made them a 21st-century mashup of the agitprop companies of the Great Depression and the activist street performers of the late 60s/early 70s.

Taking on the economic, political, social and cultural climate of the Great Recession, Bamboozled has first-rate production values and a cast of 33 actors with broad and subtle comic timing and gorgeous singing voices.

Since early August we've been meaning to get to one of their weekend productions that have traveled to different locations in all five boroughs, and today, at the last possible time, we managed to eke out some time after teaching our 9-to-noon class downtown at the wonderful Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Although we arrived late enough in the yard in front of St. Mark's Church on Second Avenue and Tenth Street to have to stand for the first half of the show, someone managed to find us a choice seat -- a dairy crate in the bank -- for the remainder.

Given that we're scrambling busy this term, teaching seven classes at four colleges six days a week, we'll cheat and cut and paste from the show's website for a little Bamboozled plot summary. (Students, it's okay if you credit your source!):

The hero of the play is a lowly but reliable Postman, whose route runs through Jackson Heights. He has always been very happy with his job, delivering the happiness of birthday cards, news of newborns and the romance of marriage invitations.

But this year, there is a terrible change--he is carrying a tsunami of unhappiness with pink slips, layoffs, businesses closings, Medicare terminations, closings of hospitals, firehouses and libraries; teacher terminations and condolences sent to the Japanese.

The TV haunts his dreams and corrupts his reality, with its bizarre reality shows and its news of wars in which we're not really there, but somehow we're bombing them to pieces.

He experiences a visitation from Diablo Hysterico, the Rock 'n' Roll King of the Underworld, who reveals to him our Faustian contract with Nuclear Power. Diablo declares, "You are America! Lord and Master of the World!"

Our hero resists the responsibility until he is visited by a fugitive from the future, who screams out what he has seen and pleads not to be sent back.

But Diablo sings him away, and the Postman flies with him to see a people-less planet--a silent world, with nothing but grasses and overhanging trees, and little animals scurrying here and there, and the only vestige of Human Civilization: a few Pokemon characters left over from a digital remix.

The operetta shows how a strong young man, slipping quickly towards middle age, can see through the maelstrom of bad news towards a clear vision of a cleaner, more harmonious planet.

Our hero fools the Devil and reminds us that a really good postman will ring three times if he has to, and even knock the door down if smoke is billowing from inside the house, and a person is screaming for help, as our planet is now.

Two years ago in Jackson Heights we saw and utterly adored TNC's 2009 summer show, Tally-Ho!, or Navigating the Future and figured it would be hard to top, but Bamboozled seemed even more resonant and entertaining.

Director/writer Crystal Field, the doyenne of New York street theater, who played Mother Nature at the end of the show, called Bamboozled "our gift to the city in the summer," and it's one for which we are extraordinarily grateful.

As the great theater writer Jerry Tallmer wrote in Chelsea Now/The Villager/Gay City News, this production of Bamboozled was enlivened considerably 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."

The eighty or so minutes of Bamboozled seemed to go by in a flash, perhaps because of its incredibly fast, almost manic pace. In addition to trenchant social satire, it gave the audience a lot to think about, and if a rollicking farce can be thoughtful, this play was just that. It was also very moving

as well as informative, especially on the nature of global warming, the perils of hydrofracking and nuclear power, and other environmental issues. The songs were indeed wonderful, but our favorite was a surprisingly touching ode to New York State's superb (and scarily endangered) drinking water.

There are also wonderful parodies of cable TV pap designed to narcotize American citizens. We don't have cable TV and only know about some of these "reality" shows from our reading, but they included hilarious send-ups of Sarah Palin's Alaska, Jersey Shore, The Deadliest Catch, and some apprentice-chef-competition reality program.

The Theater for the New City cast is, as always, both versatile -- their swift costume changes would have our heads spinning -- and infectiously energetic, with clear and resonant singing voices that you'd expect of a Broadway musical.

Led by Michael-David Gordon as the Postman and Mark Marcante as the Devil,

the actors worked together with precision and dead-on comic timing. There were times when the ensemble overflowed the stage, and the ending got the audience up on their feet -- with some joining the cast in a celebratory conclusion to the show.

We are so grateful we were able to catch the final performance of Bamboozled on such a gorgeous afternoon in the yard in front of St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery.

Since the last time we sat at a bench here, on the Sunday of Rosh Hashona a couple of years back, we ended up in the emergency room of New York Eye and Ear Infirmary a few blocks away after a freak accident (okay, okay: a bird's shit ricocheted from the inside of our glasses into our eye, causing a severe burn that didn't go away after an hour and required medical attention), we were a little, uh, gun-shy about returning to the spot.

But today the birds behaved themselves, and Theater for the New City's production, thanks to Crystal Field, the cast, crew and other creators, gave us an end-of-summer lift. As we said at the beginning, nobody does street theater better than this.

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