This year, the American theater has been responding to the change in national politics with infuriation, vexation, and distrust. Satires abound. Classics are widely being reinterpreted into a modern context. There will likely be a wave of modernist plays on the “new human condition” — witnessing the downfall of the civil society but being powerless to do anything about it. Playwright/director Crystal Field, Artistic Director of Theater for the New City (TNC), opposes powerlessness and maintains that small people can fend off tyranny through local activism. That’s the idea behind “Checks and Balances, or Bottoms Up!,” her newest made-for-outdoors musical, that she will direct for Theater for the New City’s award-winning Street Theater Company. The piece will tour City streets, parks and playgrounds in free performances throughout all five boroughs August 5 to September 17. (Schedule follows at bottom of this document.) Field has written book and lyrics and Joseph A. Banks has written the score. In the piece, a young New York School girl is galvanized into a community activist and together with key allies, learns to fight back against forces of tyranny, prejudice and hatred.
TNC’s street theater productions typically provide a bouncy joyride through the undulations of the body politic with astute commentary couched in satire, song and slapstick. Their scores are a mix of music from Bossa Nova to Hip Hop to Musical Comedy to Gilbert & Sullivan. They are delightfully suited for family audiences, since complex social issues are often presented through children’s allegories, with children and neighborhood people as the heroes. A brand new work has been presented annually since 1976.
In “Checks and Balances, or Bottoms Up!,” a Gotham school girl learns to be a feminist activist after being deemed a white elitist by her friends. Not least of her motivations is the injustice and callousness of a certain giant puppet who represents the dominion of arrogance and calls to passing women, “Here pussy, pussy, pussy!” During a spontaneous protest by subway passengers on the L train, this unlikely heroine acquires two key allies–a subway conductor and a teacher–and is inspired by three others–a Buddhist monk disguised as an itinerant bum, an investigative reporter and a blue fairy. Together, they witness the agony of deportation, the shortage of health-care, the misery of unemployment, the threats to clean air and water, and the fight to stifle the free press. So they set out to thwart the monster of apple pie fascism and threats of planetary death from the pumpkin head of state. The phrase “bottoms up” in the title refers to our need to organize decent people from the bottom up, not from the top down.
Other characters of the piece include a walking and dancing Statue of Liberty, guys in suits who celebrate the “digitally literate elite, the tourist trade, the engineering elite and corporate princes,” and immigrants from all over the world who get shoved around. Highlights of the spectacle-filled production will include a Fake News Ballet with a chorus of women dressed in newsprint, a giant Statue of Liberty puppet (which is dismembered by the villains and carried off), a song named “Sanctuary City Blues” and a Spirit of Trump apparition which rises above the stage as its two arms–with their little hands–envelop the stage. The aforementioned Blue Fairy has a quiver full of love glitter and he brings people together with it but he is never happy himself. Ultimately, he throws his love potion on the Pumpkin Head of State and the demon melts like a wicked witch, crying TWEET TWEET while sliding down the trap.
The production will be staged with an elaborate assemblage of trap doors, giant puppets, smoke machines, masks, original choreography and a huge (9′ x 12′) running screen or “cranky” providing continuous movement behind the actors. The company of 28 actors, teb crew members, two assistant directors, two stage managers and five live musicians (led by the composer at the keyboard) will share the challenge of performing outside and holding a large, non-captive audience.