Post No Bills
nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
November 17, 2009
Post No Bills, currently playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, is a story about artists' attempts to venture to and dominate the Big City, while simultaneously surviving a journey of self-discovery. The story is archetypal: An era ago this play could have been about Dutch painters in Paris, or—in the American tradition—dancers who throw off their toe shoes to hoof the vaudeville circuit, skirting burlesque. Playwright Mando Alvarado's story is specifically about New York subway musicians who do what they must to get by, at an improvised performance space beneath Port Authority: the "Post No Bills," a venue recognizable to any MetroCard bearer who has noticed those stenciled words on MTA plywood partitions. Esteban and Sal have carved out a fine niche at the Post No Bills: Esteban plays guitar and sings, while Sal occasionally joins him in improvised patter. Sal also happens to be blind, and wears a sign around his neck encouraging passersby to curse at him for a dollar. This subterranean odd couple is joined by Reyna, a teenage singer who has fled her hometown in Texas, and who instantly recognizes Esteban as "the Mexican Johnny Cash," whom she listened to as a child. Esteban soon takes the young woman under his wing. He shares his Brooklyn studio apartment with her, guides her romantic and artistic entanglements with a young guitarist named Eddie, and—pivotal in this story of mentorship and creativity—attempts to help her understand the need for a musician's acceptance of the emotional anguish at the core of artistic expression.
Alvarado's story does tread familiar territory—a wide-eyed neophyte, a wizened former star—but what grounds this play and prevents it from ever veering into cliche is a superb command of specificity. His characters seem wonderfully authentic and fully realized, seasoned with detail. These are not caricatures, plucked from the Mexican border and dropped beneath Times Square, but real people with whom audiences may empathize. Their dialogue is sharp and knowing, another feather in Alvarado's cap.
Directed by Michael Ray Escamilla with kitchen sink naturalism, Post No Bills moves fast and furious. The scenes at the Post No Bills have an almost-seeming semi-improvisational patter, while the sequences in Esteban's apartment lack any heightened theatricality to skew the immediacy of emotional conflict. These are wise decisions from a director who wishes not to sacrifice spectacle for legitimacy.
The actors are simply exceptional. As Reyna, Audrey Esparza offers sass and vulnerability, as well as an intelligence too often missing from performers playing characters years their younger—Esparza embodies her character with empathy and understanding. As well, Esparza proves a beautiful singer with an impressively expressive voice, well-matched by the guitar-playing Wade Allain-Marcus as Eddie. Allain-Marcus exudes swaggering, hipster ease, and offers welcome humor in his relatively few scenes. John-Martin Green plays Sal with a sensitive, debonair quality that allows the character to resonate perhaps even beyond Alvarado's intention. A scene of emotional catharsis late in the play is performed with such simplicity and conviction that I briefly wished for more time with this fascinating, contradictory character. It must be noted that Green plays Sal without dark glasses or any other prop to shield his eyes from the audience, making this one of the few truly successful attempts I've witnessed of a sighted actor thus portraying a non-seeing character.
Yet the performance that typifies Post No Bills and ensures its greatness is Teddy Canez as Esteban. Cynical yet sweet, looking very much like a man most comfortable with boots on his feet and a Miller Lite in his hand, Canez moves deliberately: a prowling, watchful bear. His is a character with a tortured soul, and the slow revelations as to the source and magnitude of his pain—and his exemplification as a brooding artist—are wonderfully tragic. Canez proves an outstanding singer and musician; the comparisons to Johnny Cash voiced by Alvarado's script were fast in my mind, thanks to Canez's resonant growl and the ramrod posture of his playing style.
Post No Bills, as a successful play with music, demands acknowledgement of composer Sandra Rubio's contribution. The production features songs performed live by the actors and songs sung a cappella, ranging in style from alternative to honky-tonk to Latin-infusion. Occasionally two offstage guitarists (Rubio and Andrew Wetzel) support the stage musicians, and their presence adds a welcome atmospheric quality to the proceedings. Shanna Zell's lovely "Give In" is featured, and to great effect.
The technical aspects of this production are summarily impressive. Raul Abrego's inventive set design allows the action of the play to move fluidly from one beautifully realistic playing space to another, including a brief but evocative sequence at an East Village bar. Joel Moritz's lighting utilizes practical, fluorescent lights as accent to a warm, traditional design, and Eric Shim's outstanding sound design could occasionally be mistaken for the imposition of the actual New York soundscape outside the theatre. David Anzuelo's contributions as fight director include subtle and effective sleight-of-hand trickery that positively impress.
Post No Bills is a wonderful production sure to resonate with any artist whose pursuit of their dreams has carried them from a place called Home, or any audience member whose heart warms at the mention of such a place.