Millennium’s Neighborhood

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

My last month of the millennium
began with a wonderful spectacle of civil disobedience, inaugurating a theatrical
festival that got almost no preopening publicity but nevertheless deserves more
attention than most of what passes for news in this city. Millennium’s
(Not a Celebration of the Malling of New York) was the
brainchild of the anticonsumerist preacher, performance artist and social activist
Reverend Billy (aka Bill Talen). It was conceived as an alternative to the Times
Square, Disney-led millennial celebration and organized around the activities
of many of New York’s most provocative prankster artists. Current plans
are to repeat it annually.

Its inaugural "permitless
parade" was led by two men bearing aluminum crucifixes with large Mickey
and Minnie Mouse dolls duct-taped to them and by Reverend Billy (who has been
arrested several times for his "stop-shopping actions" in the Times
Square Disney Store). The procession started at the Charas Community Center
at 605 E. 9th St. (formerly P.S. 64) that New York City is trying to sell for
luxury development, and it ended at Judson Memorial Church, the renowned birthplace
of alternative theater and dance in the 1960s, which has recently been reclaiming
its activist heritage under the leadership of Pastor Peter Laarman. Hard on
the heels of the extremely galvanizing WTO protests in Seattle, Judson played
host for seven evenings to an astonishing array of performances by actors, singers,
musicians, poets, filmmakers and others sympathetic to the festival’s causes–which
were, chiefly, battling the encroachment of corporate monoculture in New York,
and reclaiming "contested and surveiled public spaces" in the city
(Talen’s words).

You can’t go anywhere
nowadays without this "contested" reality smacking you in the face.
The day before the festival, for instance, I went to get coffee on the first
floor of Hunter College, where I teach, and discovered that the quirky little
concession stand there I’d been patronizing for years had become a Starbucks.
More than 300 people turned out at Charas on Dec. 4, marching around Tompkins
Square Park and then across to Washington Square through Astor Pl. (where there
are now three–count ’em–Starbuckses, including the one inside
Barnes & Noble). The crowd included some two dozen "Santarchists"
(a troupe of dancing Santas opposed to the commercialization of Christmas, I
was told), the Hungry Marching Band, a woman dressed as a giant fly and scores
of other people in fabulous costumes. A cordon of NYPD infantry with paddy wagons
accompanied, insisted we stay on the sidewalks, then blocked the streets themselves.
According to the organizers, more than 1200 people came through Judson on that
first night alone.

It’s impossible to
do justice to the full range of subsequent performances. The actions and pranks
included: group addresses to the cameras disguised as street lamps in Washington
Square Park, led by The Surveillance Camera Players; the ritual defacing of
a Docker’s billboard; and a walking tour of the Astor Pl. Starbucks "cluster"
led by Megan Wolff, who discussed company practices in front of customers in
the manner of a genial, self-appointed docent.

Some highpoints of the evenings
were: videotapes of the pranks; smart and sassy between-the-acts patter by Billy’s
cohost, Reno; a wonderfully obscene mock-fashion show called Fur, Fabulous Fur
by Mr. Tim and Rae C. Wright (who wore a collar supposedly made from "Two-socks,"
the wolf in Dances With Wolves); and extravagantly corny singing by the
drag queen Ruby Rims. A short play by Juliana Francis called Box, performed
by Funda Duyal and directed by Tony Torn, was quietly and subtly brilliant:
a scantily clad female sex worker behind a plexiglas panel with a phone performed
for unseen customers and also engaged in mundane activities that made her seem,
alternately, sweetly accommodating and excruciatingly lonely.

Most unforgettable of all,
for me, was a presentation by the human rights activist Charley Kernaghan, best
known for exposing the Central American sweatshops that embarrassed Kathy Lee
Gifford last year. Kernaghan, who had just arrived from Seattle, showed photos
and spoke for nearly 45 minutes about the awful details of worker cruelty and
factory enslavement he had witnessed and documented in Honduras, El Salvador,
China and elsewhere, in factories contracted by Nike, Liz Claiborne, Disney,
Wal-Mart (which owns the Kathy Lee label) and other huge multinationals. When
he finished, the spectators were left in a righteous rage, their hearts pumping
fast, their minds filled with readiness to change their behavior, maybe even
engage their consumption-frenzied friends and families in meaningful debate,
yes, in the middle of a boom-time December. It was an extraordinary moment,
and a stark reminder to all theater people that the most powerful political
theater in the info age begins and ends with the persuasive force of pure, accurate
information and the spectacle of real risk-taking.

Enter The Night
by Maria Irene Fornes
as Millennium’s Neighborhood used theater to cut through the leveling
fog of deliberate media obtuseness and complacency regarding anything that seriously
questions corporate power, Maria Irene Fornes’ Enter the Night,
the second production in Signature Theater’s all-Fornes season, used it
to cut to the root of what is important, and almost always missing, in new drama:
strangeness. (I say "new" because the play, written in 1993, has never
been done in New York before.) When produced well–that is, with a sure-handed
tonal sense and an eye toward preserving her essential ambiguities–a Fornes
work invariably leaves you feeling you have come upon a fascinating object that
you can’t quite define, even though it seems perfectly lucid and straightforward.
This is the feeling many people take away from first experiences of Beckett
and early Shepard, and it was sorely missing from David Esbjornson’s normalizing
production of Fornes’ Mud at Signature earlier this fall.

Sonja Moser’s production
of Enter the Night, by contrast, is an exquisitely unclassifiable animal.
This is an odd play even by Fornes’ standards, a slow, contemplative and
sometimes lugubrious encounter of three friends, each of whom is confronting
death in a different way. Paula (Barbara Tarbuck) has a serious heart ailment
requiring medication, Jack (Dallas Roberts) is mourning the death of his lover
from AIDS and Tressa (Rebecca Harris) is a nurse who ministers to the dying.
They meet in Tressa’s large urban loft apartment, where Jack may or may
not also live and where Paula is a guest, and share both heartbreakingly direct
talk and elaborate theatrical games. One purpose of the games seems to be the
same as that of the direct talk: to fathom their strong and ambiguous but possibly
unfathomable connections–and also, perhaps, to remind them why life is
still more compelling than its opposite.

In her inimitable fashion,
Fornes never fully clarifies exactly what these people’s relationships
are, either to one another or to the theatrics. Only tantalizing factual tidbits
and snatches are offered. Tressa seems attracted to Paula at first, for instance,
but Paula mentions a husband back on her farm and seems securely heterosexual.
Later, Jack and Tressa beautifully enact the death scene from D.W. Griffiths’
silent classic Broken Blossoms as if it were a love scene, which seems
to make Paula momentarily jealous. Meanwhile, Jack–whom Roberts plays as
extremely fey, with enormously energetic, boyish bounciness that would be annoying
if it weren’t so steeped in real feeling for the women–has written
a play that is absurdly naive and perfunctory (he says he’s currently working
as an assistant stage manager). And the women gush about how beautiful this
text is, even though farm girl Paula, for one, seems much more urbane than in
her other opinions: "When we’re young we pretend we want to be artists.
But all we’re interested in is seduction."

Among Fornes’ many
gifts is a knack for picking up on the quiet insanity and heartbreak behind
seemingly simple and guileless talk. Her very straightforwardness can be unnerving
because, with it, her people serve up their hearts to each other on platters,
then count on cruelly truthful theatrical rituals to validate their offerings.
Christine Jones’ stark, cavernous, somewhat dispiriting apartment set is,
oddly enough, a fitting container for this dynamic. Its very clunkiness–doorways
without molding, for instance, that look like horizontal graves–creates
an impression of life as a sinkhole or drain for exuberance and joy that must
be constantly fought against with beauty and love.

I do have a few quibbles.
The show’s first 15 minutes or so are too sleepy and indolent to keep many
spectators from nodding, and a culminating image of a shirtless, blood-smeared
Jack in a Pieta tableau is much too heavy-handed for me, especially after the
subtlety of so much else. Still, Moser (a Columbia University MFA student, according
to her bio) has shaped the rhythms and tones of this peculiar, fragile world
with remarkable confidence, and all three actors have created people whose likable
complexity more than repays the audience’s frustrations with the unexplained.
In the difficult arena of Fornes production, this qualifies as a triumph.

Signature Theater, 555
W. 42nd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 244-PLAY, through Dec. 19.