OFF Stage: the West Village Fragments
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 24, 2006
It's not every day that New Yorkers get to watch someone get beat up in the street without feeling guilty about it. But, those who embark on the walking tour/site-specific performance art piece that is OFF Stage: the West Village Fragments will get just such an opportunity. Peculiar Works Project's jaw-droppingly ambitious new production is an homage to the writers, artists, and venues that pioneered the off-off-Broadway theatre movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The spirits of The Living Theater, The Judson Poets Theater, and other off-off companies of yesteryear are resurrected while the audience is led on a labyrinth trail of Greenwich Village streets, stoops, and storefronts. Over two-plus hours, 50 actors and 14 directors present scenes from the plays of off-off's signature scribes—including Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and Maria Irene Fornes—that simultaneously send the viewer back in time and put the present into a larger historical perspective. It is a thrilling, vibrant, and inspirational piece of theatre that is unlike anything I have ever seen before.
The beating in question comes right at the start of OFF Stage, as several actors perform a scene from Kenneth Brown's The Brig, in which six prisoners are degraded and brutalized by their captors right on the corner of Christopher and Gay Streets. Cars and pedestrians pass by, curiously ogling the goings-on as the actors drop to do push-ups or get punched in the stomach. OFF Stage is filled with moments like that, both in the show and happening around it. Two scenes by playwright Robert Heide, from West of the Moon and The Bed, are performed on a large bed that is pulled northbound along Seventh Avenue to both the amusement and confusion of passers-by. A unisex cast of pretty young things strip to their skivvies in front of Washington Square Methodist Church to re-create the birth of Dionysus from Richard Schechner's Dionysus in 69. (At the performance I saw, one young lady in the building across the way stuck her head out the window and inquired, "What are you doing?" Without missing a beat, the actor playing Dionysus turned to her, and replied, "I was just born!") And, when another young actress rips open her shirt during a scene from Rosalyn Drexler's Home Movies to reveal a brassiere made out of flowers, every head on the street turns. (On the night I attended, this section caught the attention of a drunk who exclaimed, "Yeah! Now that's what I'm talkin' about!" before moving on.)
There is a loose storyline connecting the proceedings—about gathering bail money to free some imprisoned artists—but it's not really important. The main event is seeing these excerpts played out on the teeming streets of New York. On one level, OFF Stage is a triumph of production coordination: Peculiar Works Project takes over the neighborhood with a squad of street theatre commandos the size of a major film crew. How else to explain the ease with which they're able to perform along the entire expanse of Cornelia Street, for instance, without any interference?
But, OFF Stage is more than just an elaborate stunt. It's a celebration of the countercultural spirit that forged an artistic revolution. Much of what's here may seem quaint by today's standards, but one must keep in mind that if off-off-Broadway had never been created, most of these plays might never have been seen at all. To watch these excerpts performed not only in the neighborhood where they originated, but, in some cases, right in front of the theatres where they first played (like the legendary but now defunct Caffe Cino and Circle Repertory Company), is like momentarily watching history in the making all over again.
At the same time, OFF Stage is living proof that today's ever-growing Indie Theater scene owes its life to the initial efforts of these trailblazers. While this production might have appeared radical and groundbreaking back in the '60s, something this unconventional is not as surprising now. That makes it no less dazzling, but I think audiences now have come to expect a special uniqueness from Indie Theater (or, at least from the West Village). For that, OFF Stage—and all of New York—has its theatrical predecessors to thank.
As one might expect from a show of this magnitude, there are many highlights. For me, they include Steve Hauck's powerhouse rendering of the title character from Wilson's The Madness of Lady Bright (which earned a well-earned round of applause from the outdoor diners at the Cornelia Street Café, seated nearby); Michael Tomlinson's haunting turn as Fred Herko from Monuments: Freddie's Monologue by Diane di Prima (I actually thought he was a homeless guy laying in a puddle of his own urine until he rose and started speaking); and a tribute to Dames at Sea, featuring Kristen Lewis and Joel Newman tap-dancing their hearts out on the corner of Bleecker and Cornelia Streets. Truth be told, though, the entire cast is spectacular, and all the directors do a splendid job.
My hat is off to Peculiar Works Project for pulling off something this gutsy and no-holds-barred. OFF Stage: the West Village Fragments is entertaining, vital theatre that I can't recommend highly enough. Go take a walk with these courageous artists, learn about the theatre's (and this city's) past, and become a part of history in the making.