Ladies and Gentlemen, Theater for the New City's annual Lower East Side Festival of the Arts continued its 16th season this past Memorial Weekend, with a circus of events in at least two theaters, the Johnson and the Cabaret, with some adjunct activity at the Community Space (poetry) and outdoors on East 10th Street (music and poetry), plus artwork and video in the lobbies. The fest provides a chance encounter with friends and favorites, featuring long-term contributors Ellen Steier (actor singer pianist composer), Chris Force (playwright) Keith Ninesling (double bass and ukulele), Richard West and Lissa Moira. I returned to participation there in 2007 with help from Maria Micheles, then a volunteer, now a Masters candidate in the Columbia School of Journalism.
My familiarity with Theater for the New City dates back to 1983 when I followed playwright critic Jay Padroff there (and everywhere). Then it resided at 2nd Avenue and East 10th Street… (162 2nd Avenue). It was a late night live theater multiplex where you could walk through a hall and slip into one theater after another. The most memorable events were those assembled by the tall accordionist, Ethyl Eichelberger whose warmth and talent supported everyone on stage. (A souvenir flyer lists an 11PM start time for "Ruth, Ruth," by Eichelberger, with Harvey Perr, Barbara Wise, John D. Brockmeyer, Steven Burkick, Jack Mallory, Agosto Machado and Ivan Smith." ovary-ture by Evan Lurie. )
Here we are in 2011 and Theater for the New City is as exciting as ever in 30,000 square feet of space at 155 First Avenue between East 9th and East 10th Streets. I wonder whether one person can absorb an entire TNC Festival of the Arts. My comments are limited by my presence there… for example… Rachel Trachtenberg, daughter of my friend Jason, was performing outdoors with her "Supercute" band while I waited in the cabaret for the screening of my 80 minute Question of Solitude DVD. By missing Rachel, I enjoyed the last 20 minutes of Andru Cann's 84 minute A Lower East Side Odyssey. I know Andru, and Jason Trachtenberg too, from the days of Lach's Antihoot. Steve Espinola, also a friend from the Antihoot, who joined us later for dinner, reminded me that Andru, a thin/tall charming British fellow wrapped in his personal odyssey persona, was known to us then as pianist/guitarist Andrew McCann. Notable in Andru's film was the continuous camera coverage of a committee meeting of band members, where his girlfriend in attendance agrees to an open relationship, but walks out upon the arrival of Andru's former girlfriend (Andru and the camera following her into another room.). The dialogue of many people speaking at once in that scene was difficult to differentiate yet it conveyed immediacy and a jist of meaning, just like in real life…Either months of painstaking script-doctoring and storyboarding or single-take random documentary achieves that kind of cinema perfection.
Following the first public screening of my "A Question of Solitude" DVD was a great animated 30 minute musical episode called "Icy Trouble" by Ian James a/k/a William Electric Black. It built slowly toward revealing the sedentery anti-social solitude provided by computer games, and glorified the teamwork in a real game of ice hockey. I was thrilled to see Kat Yew as one of the cartoon voices… she was also one of the eight stars of A Question of Solitude… and that was the extent of my film-fest experience. The curator, Francess Maingrette, asked questions of the artists between screenings.
After dinner we were hoping to see Joe Franklin but instead caught a bit of Lanford Wilson's Sex is "Between Two People," directed by Lissa Moira, in the Johnson Theater. There was also acrobatics from a fellow capable of winding his limbs around a rope and keeping track of the tangles with which he suspended himself. Looking at the rest of Saturdays program we missed many fantastic events including a scene from a play by the Israeli Neil Simon, Hanoch Levin.
Friday, the night before, I presented an introduction to a new musical project, "The Floaters." I heard a bit of Ben Harburg and Friends. I walked in on his "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" His voice somewhat disturbingly drawls. I almost thought he would lose the notes but instead he etched them ever deeper into my brain. "SAY DON'T YOU REMEMBER, THEY CALLED ME AL … ". Say, do you remember that Barbra Streisand put her own indelible mark on that verse? Ben's grandfather wrote those words. Apparently Ben lives upstairs in the outrageous jettison to what was formerly a city market and sanitation building. Given the creative self-sustaining redistribution of air rights and public property I am deluded into thinking that Crystal Field's Theater for the New City is here to stay.
Ben's performance was in a room with 40-foot ceilings called The (Joyce and Seward) Johnson Theater (A common enough surname suggests great prosperity when doubled, ie., Johnson of Johnson & Johnson…).. Late Friday evening we returned for a glimpse into the Johnson. Looking upward we saw acrobatics near the ceiling by "Suspended Cirque," three trapeze artists with four limbs capable of sustaining their weight, four limbs, any of which is capable of throwing or catching the weight of their entire bodies, and for their finale, dropping and catching each other, they functioned as a single 12-limbed organism.
Sunday evening we saw a Bina Shariff double-featurette, she herself performing in her "Stream of Consciousness," an art piece with two gentlemen silently sipping tea while the other two, she and Kevin Mitchell Martin, confront the impossibility of suicide. We ran downstairs to see Chris Force's "Angel of Death," which was immediately followed by two of his cast members (Ellen Steier was one) sharing strictly entre nous Bina's "Happy Day."
To paraphrase: Wake up with your happy day. Do not begrudge me my, do not expect me to share with you my, it's a lucky secret that I have my Happy Day.
Mike Amato made comments worthy of the male predicament, self effacing and engaging. Ultimately he justifies being the brunt of his own jokes. Ordinary men are anything but gentle so he observed that the term needed to be added as an acknowledgment.
To paraphrase: Good evening, tough women and gentle men. Welcome!
Lorcan Otway sang beautifully in a traditional Irish style. I recently met him at his Theater 80 St. Marks. He shared its speakeasy history. I understand there's a gangster museum there... and even ran a bit of my Question of Solitude DVD in his theater, demonstrating that it looked and sounded good enough to submit to Francesse's LES Film Fest.
On Sunday night Kim and I, also saw "Midnight Fantasy," a ferry play by Laurence Holder. Dixie Lee sang and recited poetry with Keith on double bass.
Bob Homeyer, who hosted the cabaret in place of Robert Fitzsimmons, introduced and acted impeccably in his own staging of a short play by David Mamet. He played a radio talk show host addressing half-baked ideas from late-night callers in "4AM."
Dawoud Kringle hypnotized everyone with his sitar meditations… I kept hearing the unvarying open fifth between its two lower strings.
Dr. Sue won me over with an introduction to her musical "El Senor X," which she performed accapella after interaction with her mike stand. Please note her last ballad has a beautiful commanding melody.
When we first left the Johnson for the Cabaret after Bina Shariff's piece, we caught the bilingual tale-end of Dada NewYork's "A Dog is not a Hammock," which struck me as fantastic authentic dada.
I just got the cast names for the readers who sat in for "The Floaters" introduction: Maria Micheles (the others were her cast), Newton Schwartz, Lena Gora and Charles Casano. Joining me on guitar and voice was Annie Levey-Allauzen (the La-Loop member of The Steppes).
Elijah Black played songs between our pieces.
Maria's piece, "From Memory," showed a young lady searching for friendship from a salesman at a bookstore who can't help but expect more…
Dorothy August and Carol Polcovar wrote "Gorilla Kisses," portraying values from the "1970's." I suppose the '70's were a permissive "me" decade, where people engaged in open relationships. They could accept casual intimacy by not caring about one another. In this case a female gorilla comes between the couple.
In Claire Helene's set she did something amazing with her low register. She ended with Dr. Feelgood, but her highlight for me was a torch song whose name I can't remember. A Michael Tilford (The Mole King in Hermaphroditism Through the Ages) played a wild piano accompaniment.
Then Joe Bendik played perfect guitar accompaniments while singing his own tightly wound songs, as well as a lieder by Robert Schumann. To see his hand move about the neck of that guitar suggests that he was born playing it. He may be the most musically trained musician ever to embrace the punk aesthetic.
On Memorial Day that followed TNC's LES Fest, Kim Mossel sagely suggested we go early to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There we saw the Alexander McQueen and Richard Serra exhibits, a study in contrasts, and the black and white night photography collection. I love existing light photography, Richard Serra always makes me crazy and I'm grateful to Mr. McQueen for visualizing Plato's Atlantis, a possible destination for my new project, The Floaters.
The song Claire Helene sang wasn't a torch song but rather a companion piece to Yip Harburg's Brother, Can You Spare a Dime. From Claire: "that was 'Nobody Knows You,' an old blues tune. Bessie Smith and Derek and the Dominos recorded it."
Final note Concurrent with the Saturday LES program, Lach, with Anu and son, Henry, hosted an apartment sale as they prepare to sail across the ocean to Scotland...Lach's anti-hoot is now part of the Edinburough Fringe Festival.