Simple theater probably began on some obscure street corner or in a field on a rock or on a shore. Somebody who had talent for emoting stood up, and in a personality which her friends didn’t readily recognize, said something loud and funny or soft and serious or loud and serious. And then someone joined in, and they pretended together for a while. A little crowd gathered and expressed their admiration or dissatisfaction. And then perhaps a writer carved what happened into a stone tablet. I’m happy to report its descendant thrives today. We call it street theater.
Theater for the New City, a venerable institution on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is presenting their latest musical production, Checks and Balances, or Bottoms Up!, scheduled to play in The Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island until mid-September. Written by the theater’s Executive Director, Crystal Field who has been doing this kind of work for 41 years, Checks is a forthrightly political story, a vibrant cartoon in the best sense, liberal and concerned about issues which have enveloped all of us: immigration, health care, ecology, the obsessive force of markets, poverty, the marginalized, and, most prominently, fake news.
On a warm Saturday afternoon on East 10th Street at First Avenue, on a bright little stage with an excellent band, a company of twenty-five actors, some professionals, others not, told the story of how we who live in the U.S. all come from immigrant stock. So many of us look to The Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’ poem at its base, as iconic, of tremendous importance, a statement of national mission: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore; send these, the homeless tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”
Well, in this play, The Suits (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, etc.) dismantle Lady Liberty, a large green cutout, their intent to destroy what makes our country great. And they nearly succeed. But the Lady’s head disappears, and they’re frantic, because the brain is where ideas such as clean air and water, green cards, and the rule of law applied equally to all citizens and to the government itself, reside. But have no fear. The Lady’s head is safe, and it reappears at the end of the play in the safe hands of a wise Buddhist monk. We’re reasonably sure that truth will endure and love will prevail, despite the Suits chant of “Lock her up!”
The plot involves a teenage girl’s quest to find truth and her mission in an increasingly confusing New York City. She takes shelter within a homeless community, including characters like Mother Earth, the Blue Fairy, and the aforementioned Buddhist monk. She is taught life lessons like the importance of looking around to see what’s actually happening in your community, and then, if things look bad, figure out what needs to be done to right them. The danger of not doing so is, the monk explains, “He who does not move gets moved.” The importance of accessible health care and ecological awareness are dramatized.
The Trump administration comes under fire with its emphasis on raising the wealthy even further, admitting to the country and doing deals with Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern potentates, fossil fuel dealers, and the like. Concern that Trump has his finger on the nuclear option is represented by use of the bomb and the following nuclear winter, a dying swan ballet nicely danced.
But Trump and his cronies are unmasked by the persistent press, and his image, which has dominated the set throughout most of the play, sinks, sort of melts like that famous Wicked Witch of the West. The Blue Fairy scatters love dust all around, and everyone dances to Blue Moon, perhaps a nod to the Democrats.
For me, the best scenes were a crowded subway car where the conductor announces a never-ending stream of delays and train changes; the Fake News song, performed by lovely ladies in a Busby Berkeley number, wearing scant costumes made of strips of newspaper; the Mara Largo cocktail party where the champagne-drinking guests, including Trump, harass a member of the press who is, of course, trying to gather information; and two clowns in a burlesque routine about fake news, where they take turns asserting something and swat each other in retaliation. This was all nicely directed by Ms. Fields, with help from music by Joseph Vernon Banks, and a particularly fun “cranky” (a set piece displaying moving scenery) by Mary Blanchard.
The music and acting are good, not great, but this is a celebration for the neighborhood, to keep people thinking and focused on resistance, on logical forward motion for the betterment of the community. Street theater has its place in the human panorama which is theater at all levels of accomplishment.
CHECKS AND BALANCES, OR BOTTOMS UP! – Book, lyrics & direction by Crystal Field; Score composed & arranged by Joseph Vernon Banks
WITH: Matthew Angel, Danielle Aziza, Alexander Bartenieff, Briana Bartenieff, Crystal Field, Larry Fleishman, Cheryl Gadsden, Michael-David Gordon, Sam Guiterrez, Ben Harburg, Terry Lee King, Isaiah Lebron, T. Scott Lilly, Sean Mannix, Mark Marcante, Alison Nolan, Allison Patrick, Emily Pezzella, Justin Rodriguez, Gabrielle Sarrubo, Ramon Torres, Dezire Velez, Natasha Velez, Juan Villegas, Lei Zhou
Cranky design by Mary Blanchard; flats & set pieces by Walter Gurbo; sound design Joy Linscheid; costume designs by Susan Hemley, Desiree Conston & Everett Clark; props by Lytza Colon; special designs by David “Zen” Mansley; puppet designs by Kathy Shaw; production director, Mark Marcante; production administrator, Bob Homeyer; assistant directors, Jane Skapek & Ryan Michael Atwell; workshop consultants, Joseph-Vernon Banks, Michael David Gordon, Michael Bongar, John Grimaldi, NY Lyric Circus; Terry Lee King, T. Scott Lily, Mark Marcante, David McReynolds – WRL, Elizabeth Ruf, Jessica Stokey, Bina Sharif
Musicians: Joseph Vernon Banks (piano), Michael Grayson (drums), Nelson Lucena (percussion), Lauren Reilly (trumpet), Max Schweiger (saxophone), Phil Smith (bass), Annie Lebeaux (rehearsal pianist)
Press Representative: Jonathan Slaff
This play will be presented in the five Boroughs of New York City on a variety of dates. Its run is from August 5 – September 17, 2017. For further information please go to http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net, or call 212-254-1109. Playing time: An hour and a half.