Returning to The Flea, for Taylor Mac’s The Fre. Theater in a Time of Crisis Again

With a virus threatening the city, it made sense to me to see Taylor Mac’s “The Fre,” at the Flea, although all Broadway and most Off-Broadway theaters had already shut down. The Flea was the Off-Off Broadway theater that had served as a refuge after 9/11. People gathered at the theater, then a dozen blocks from the World Trade Center site, to attend “The Guys.” The play by Anne Nelson was based on her experience helping a fire captain on Staten Island write eulogies for his men who had died during September 11th. Initially starring Sigourney Weaver (co-founder of The Flea) and Bill Murray, it proved cathartic, and with a different starry cast every six weeks, it ran for a year.
Almost two decades later, the Flea has moved into a new space, it has a new artistic director, but its motto is the same — “Raising a Joyful Hell in a Small Space” – and the memory still lingers of the solace it offered.
The crisis now (as then) has left New Yorkers double if not triple shell-shocked, threatening our physical and mental health, and our livelihoods. But for now, the current crisis also largely denies us the community and spiritual uplift that theater provides in times of crisis.
So I decided not to cancel my attendance at the show to which I had been invited weeks ago – even though, a few hours before show time, I received an e-mail: “In the midst of the current Covid-19 pandemic, The Flea Theater has decided to cancel all Flea performances through April 2, effective following Friday, March 13 performances.”
I took the precaution of walking to the theater, instead of taking public transportation, and I carried with me a bottle of rubbing alcohol (since I’ve been unable to find any hand sanitizer.)
Both the car and the pedestrian traffic on the way downtown was sparser than usual for a Friday, and I saw one or two people wearing surgical masks.
A woman without a mask walking towards me suddenly coughed, and I surprised myself at (mentally) registering strong disapproval because she coughed into her hand – rather than, as every public health guideline urges, into her clothed elbow. I swerved to the right so that when I walked past her I would be as far away as possible, “practicing social distancing,” the newly adopted language of 21st century pandemics.
I arrived at the Thomas Street theater, maneuvering to open the door with my arm rather than my hand, and was delighted to see the lobby armed with some half dozen bottles of Purell,
How did they even get ahold of these? I spotted Carol Ostrow, who has been the producing director of The Flea since 2001 (her first show was “The Guys”), and I asked her.
“We planned for this way in advance, because the audience would be in the ball pit, and we wanted to make sure they were safe.”
The ball pit?
She suddenly coughed…twice. Both times she did it correctly – into her elbow. But, still, I thought, shouldn’t I back up four to six feet away from her? Would that be rude?
I hadn’t paid attention to the play I’d be seeing. All I knew was that the show was by Taylor Mac, the fabulous, in-your-face downtown theater artist (on Broadway, “Gary A Sequel to Titus Andronicus”,  Off-Broadway Hir, and a 24-Decade History of Popular Music) and so to expect something outrageous Off-Off Broadway.
After her remark, I noticed the sign posted in the lobby: “The balls in the pit are Germblock antimicrobial balls. Before each performance, we sanitize the ball pit with a professional grade disinfectant.”
The brown balls, each larger than a baseball and much softer, were meant to represent mud. Audience members were given the option of sitting amidst a pit piled high with these balls, or to sit outside the pit. I was among the half of the theatergoers who had opted to sit outside.
I’ve been asked to save my review of “The Fre” until the rescheduled opening of the play on April 2nd, which feels like a very long way away. Allow me just a few timely remarks. Many of the theatergoers looked as if they were having a good time even before the show began, mingling in the lobby; I saw only a few shaking hands, but more than a few hugging one another. Then Taylor Mac (actually the actress Yvonne Jessica Pruitt) appeared in the lobby, to describe the “witless silliness” of the play we were about to see, and to introduce us to its characters, the Fre, who “all feel that filth is genuine/So live amidst a playground full of mud.” Once we entered that playground, the audience– especially the ones sitting up to their neck in those brown balls – were not practicing what one could call social distancing, but they looked happy.
They sounded near ecstatic near the end of the play, after two heavyset actors (Ryan Chittaphone and Alex J. Moreno), who had been dressed in elaborate costumes and makeup, stripped to their underwear, covered themselves in mud, and started kissing. One licked the other’s face, from chin to forehead – to wild applause.
I suppose it’s a good thing not to go around anxious, but was I the only one who felt stuck at the beginning of a Nero-fiddling kind of teen horror movie?
“I hope those two guys are healthy,” I said to a young couple as we left the theater.
“What do you mean?” the young woman asked.

This feels like one crisis in which the community might have to find its uplift somewhere besides live theater — or come up with a different definition of theater.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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