A hundred years ago, our tour guide was saying, New Yorkers were such idiots
that they stopped throwing away their garbage, and the city disappeared under a pile of rubbish, mostly coffee cups, stale cupcakes and hipsters.
Our tour guide, I should point out, is a penguin, and we, the tourists walking the streets and shops of the Lower East Side decked in fluorescent yellow-green vests, live in an environmentally sensitive society in the year 2114, visiting the recently excavated city that has remained unchanged in the century that has elapsed since 2014.
That’s the premise of the 90-minute comedy show/theater piece/walking tour created and conducted by Australian comic Xavier Toby (dressed as a penguin), who entitles it “2014: When We Were Idiots,” one of the 205 shows at this year’s New York International Fringe Festival.
All the people we see walking by, Toby explains, are actors he’s hired. “Feel free to take photographs of them, even if they seem to get angry. They’re not angry; they’re just acting.” We should also feel free to take anything from any of the shops we walk by, and not pay for it; they’re pretending to charge as part of the show.
“It is very important to remember: There are no wrong answers,” Toby says at the outset, as he proceeds to provide a whole slew of them, mostly couched as cautionary tales about environmental neglect, often delivered through a megaphone. The reason why he’s a penguin, for example, is because global warming chased them off Antarctica, and they immigrated to the United States, where, it was discovered, they made natural tour guides. (?)
Toby has given versions of this tour at other Fringe festivals, including Edinburgh and several in his native Australia (where the penguin shtick probably made more sense). For his tour in Melbourne, he stood outside a police station talking about corruption, and ended it in a pub.
In the tour I took, we applauded the diners at a corner pizzeria, and watched while he accosted various passersby. He asked two young women what they were pretending to be.
“A dragon,” one said cooperatively.
“A fairy,” said the other.
A strange thing happened during this mock walking tour. It became a real walking tour. This was the case when we walked through the Essex Street Market; he gave us 10 minutes to do any shopping we wanted. But it also occurred simply because this is New York City, where the real things are weirder than anything he could have made up.
Example: Toby pointed out the statue of Lenin and the clock with scrambled numbers atop a building on Houston Street. This is the roof of Red Square, an apartment building constructed in 1989, the year of the fall of the Soviet Union. The clock with the random numbers is a replica of a watch in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
Another example: A woman in a bathing suit stopped us on the street, turned on a tape recorder, and started to do an exotic dance. She was, as it turns out, promoting a different Fringe show, a series of comedy sketches entitle 20/400.
2014 – When We Were Idiots (A comedy walking tour hosted by Xavier Toby) will be presented through August 23, 2014. Check the Fringe website for details.