It seems apt that the Up Close Festival at the New Ohio Theater is likely the last work of theater I will see in 2018, because it reminded me what there is to love about theater, and how I can fall in love with it anew.
At first, though, I felt misled. The show is billed as “an immersive festival about New York for New Yorkers of all ages” and “modeled after the community organizing legacy of Jane Jacobs,” who was an important writer, urban theorist, and community activist of Greenwich Village. The New Ohio is located in the Village, and “Up Close” promised “reimagined real moments” from the neighborhood’s history.
But when a woman who identified herself as Ms. Pea (Summer Shapiro), led us from the theater lobby down a dark staircase to the room where the festival would take place, I discovered that the New Yorkers present represented all ages between roughly five and 10. (Plus a few parents.) And I didn’t see any community organizing. The kids were hanging out, engaging in the kind of kid-like activities they offer at street fairs. In one corner, there was a makeshift tree, whose leaves were sheets of paper. On each piece of paper, a kid had filled in the blanks: “My name is…I was born in….My family and I came from….”
In another corner of the room, a woman with her hair in two buns (Marisol Rosa-Shapiro) is roping in various children to pick up trash, and then oddly chatting with them about what they had picked up..
Then, after about 15 minutes, Mrs. Pea gathered everybody together, and a proper show began – and all those seemingly random activities turned out to be clever preparation for the four pieces to follow.
In “Juan Rodriguez and the City of Immigrants,” Jono Waldman strummed his banjo and sang a song incorporating the answers that audience members had given about their name and place of origin on the pages now hanging from the tree, which segued into a song about the first immigrant to New York – his name was Juan Rodriguez, he was born in Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic), and his family came from West Africa and Portugal. He asked some of the audience members to hold onto a white sheet and make it into an ocean wave.
Rosa-Shapiro turned out to be a rat, with a penchant for garbage and for poetry.
“I saw the greatest incisors of my generation cut on discarded crusts,” she recited. A spoof of “Howl” – for five year olds! The play is entitled “Velveeta Underground: A Pizza Rat’s Quest to Save Cheesy Beet Poetry.”
In “Hope and the Bitter End,” we were thrust into the blackout of 1965, while members of the Trusty Sidekick Theater Company portrayed folksingers at New York’s oldest rock club, treating us to folk singing and guitar-playing
In the fourth and final piece, Ms. Pea became Jane Jacobs. It was cleverly entitled “Sidewalk Ballet” – after the most famous passage in Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” about what a neighborhood needs to thrive. Our Jane explained Jacobs’ philosophy, lyrically, but perhaps a bit above the heads of the younger audience members, despite an obvious effort to keep it kid-friendly:
“What a playground! What a symphony of spontaneous happenings. And even if you don’t talk to all the people you see, or can’t see the ones who are eating dinner three floors up, or won’t meet the hundreds passing underground on the A train, you matter to them. Your presence changes people, changes places, changes things. You make a space what it is.”
But then she tied it all together with ribbons. Instead of the “ribbon cutting ceremonies” that “turn diverse neighborhood blocks into large high rises of tiny expensive apartment,” we would have a ribbon-tying ceremony. And so we did.
Each of the four short pieces, none lasting more than about 15 minutes, took place in a different corner of the room, requiring us to move. Each, in one way or another, called for audience participation.
What I saw was Program A. There is only one more performance of those pieces, today at 3 p.m. But Program B, which will be performed from December 27thto December 31st, brings us to Café Society in Sheridan Square in 1939 and Christopher Street in 1978 – and features Pizza Rat once again! (Tickets and details.)
Up Close wound up doing what it had promised, but in a way different from what I expected. “Kids often have no preconception about what theater should be,” directors Peter Musante and Summer Shapiro write in the program, “so we allow ourselves to be driven by that same sense of curiosity….”
In there somewhere is the making of a theatergoer New Year’s resolution.
Click on any Buatti-Ramos photograph to see it enlarged.