The Burning Cities Project
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 22, 2006
The concept behind The Burning Cities Project (as articulated by the man who conceived and produced the show, Brad Raimondo; you can hear him on the nytheatrecast) is to tell the stories of dislocated people—the millions and millions of people throughout history who have lost their home when their city, or a part of it, was destroyed. 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are the two obvious, recent impetuses for this project, but Raimondo and his dedicated collaborators reach all the way back to Pompeii as they attempt to theatricalize what the survivors of these catastrophes have in common.
It's a great idea, and at least part of the time The Burning Cities Project serves it effectively. Applying techniques made famous by directors such as Anne Bogart and Moises Kaufman, Jennifer McGrath has staged the piece as a collage of disparate voices, consisting of pieces created and performed by Raimondo, Emma Canalese, Danelle Eliav, Eve Gibson, Mark Lindberg, Danielle Monica Long, Laura Moss, Ricardo Perez Gonzalez, Molly Pope, Alexus Robertson, Sarah Worrest, and Morgan Anne Zipf. Some of the pieces are very brief monologues in which (I'm guessing) interviewees react to the topic; the rest are vignettes or sketches or movement pieces. Most of the scenes are about a specific event (the bombing of Dresden, the aftermath of Katrina), while a few look at the subject more holistically. For example, a striking short dance sequence called "Restraint," performed by Zipf, offers a generalized look at how humanity destroys and then rebuilds cyclically. A longer performance art piece, performed by Pope, Lindberg, and members of the ensemble, generalizes about life before and after 9/11 in an archetypal urban setting.
Though this material could in places be presented more clearly (the people who are "speaking" in the monologues could be identified, for example) and/or more challengingly (I wondered throughout if a non-linear approach, jumbling up the stories and monologues, might be more engaging), its earnestness is its most distinguishing characteristic. There is, however, a long piece called "The H-Word" that deals with the Holocaust which I found confusing, (a) because I couldn't make sense of some of the presumably darkly humorous ideas included in it, and, more important, (b) because the Holocaust doesn't seem to belong in this show. The most profound and compelling material here is about displacement following cataclysmic disaster; diaspora and genocide, certainly worthy subjects for contemplation, take us into a different area of inquiry and just feel jarring and out-of-place when they're brought up here.
The creator/performers of this show, most of them recent NYU graduates, have undoubtedly learned a great deal about themselves and about performance in constructing this show. Some of their insight and passion finds its way across the footlights to the audience by the end of the show, and that's commendable.