Monday, November 19, 2007

Lost in History vol. 44: To Grab the Ring, or Not to Grab the Ring . . .

The audience shuffled into the cold Water Street warehouse space. A chatty bunch of about twenty-five occupied the folding chairs set up in front of a marvelously detailed 20th century carousel placed behind two shuttered chain-link gates. Only a few children were present, but by the looks of the adults’ eyes, the entire audience was prepared for a childlike transformation, once the gates rolled up and the carousel started moving. Calling all adults, children, Shakespearean superstars, carousel confidants and puppetry populists: the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater presents Hamlet, atop Jane’s Carousel, through this weekend.

The carousel is an ongoing restoration project overseen by Jane Walentas, wife to DUMBO developer David. The carousel was built in 1922 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company; the couple purchased it in 1984, and Mrs. Walentas has spent the better part of two decades refurbishing it. The eventual intended home is Brooklyn Bridge Park, but the park isn’t ready for the ride just yet. So it sits, sometimes in motion but mostly just waiting for other creative souls to make the most of a glorious old-time amusement ride.

Which brings us to the Czech-American Marionette Theater. What better set for a mini-production (ninety minutes flat, five puppeteers, about a dozen puppets) of Hamlet, featuring mini-inanimate-actors, than a carousel? You’ve got the cyclical conscience of the lead and the circular logic of life-or-death existentialism; what’s more, both the set and the stars are made out of gorgeous hard-carved wood!

Okay, not all the actors were inanimate. The three men and two women performers, carrying fifteen roles between them, were always an active presence on the stage. Crawling across the benches, straddling the horses and slithering between the rotational poles, they made the best of their one-of-a-kind carousel. These were puppeteers who acknowledged their presence next to each two-foot co-star, which allowed them to make the drama big enough for the children in the to enjoy and understand, but intense and goose-flesh inducing enough for us big kids during the truly heartbreaking scenes. One particularly powerful moment shows us Ophelia’s madness, high above the audiences’ heads.

There are a handful of original songs performed by the in-house musician, on keyboards, resonator steel guitar, harmonica, mouth-harp, and uke. The songs illustrate the action nicely, and the musical genres cross over from gospel to Nordic war chant to Southern blues to Eastern European folk to cinematic soundtrack. The puppets do their thing, sometimes less interestingly than the performers, and sometimes as interesting. Hardly do the puppets outshine the hardworking actors, with the exception of the singular, multi-faced puppet representing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There’s also a wondrous interlude with Balinese shadow puppets during the play-within-a-play scene.

But of course, the true star in all of this is the carousel. When turning counter-clockwise or when sitting absolutely still, with all its light bulbs on and mirrors glinting in the lights, or even when dark and ominous, a portent of things to come, truly nothing can beat its old-Americana majesty. Once the viewer gets over the intense envy developed while watching these actors with their marionettes climb and jostle, dart and skip, weave and work their ways around this rotating work of art, the entire production ends up playing second fiddle to the stock quiet and simple spectacle of the carousel.

Jane’s Carousel
56 Water St, DUMBO.
Closing weekend! Friday and Saturday at 8pm
Saturday and Sunday at 2pm
Tickets available in advance at the box office,, or (212) 868-4444

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Khiel Coppin "Suicide by Cop" / new Sidney Lumet film

Complicated thoughts on the NYPD, 20 bullets, and an obviously distraught 18 year old african-american, brandishing a hairbrush and begging the cops to open fire. On my bikeride home from the movies, while going through still-tough-as-nails Stuyvesant Heights - the neighborhood of the shooting - I realized a was a few blocks away from the tragedy, which happened Monday night. Coppin refused to show his hands to the cops, and claimed he had a gun, so the cops shot. 10 of the bullets hit the kid, and he was pronounced DOA at Woodhull hospital. Now, the cops were just doing their job - this psychotic youth claimed he had a gun, and a history of crime and mental illness. But to draw an easily recognizable pattern of overeager cops shooting unarmed black youth is nothing new in Brooklyn (and Queens). Everyone remembers the Sean Bell shooting in Jamaica, Queens, in November 2006. Not many NYers still recall the January 2004 shooting of unarmed Timothy Stansbury Jr. on the rooftop of 385 Lexington St, also in Stuy Heights. This was when "Tim-Tim" was reaching for the rooftop door while the cop was on the other side. The cop blasted away at this unarmed 19 year old. Cop got acquitted too. Heartbreaking. What to do, in a world of sudden and surprise violence? No answers here, just reflections.

This is the bleach stain on Gates at Throop. Essentially where Coppin's body fell. Some guy on the street told me just finished cleaning it that night.


On a positive note, Gideon and I saw the spiritually crushing but phenomenally powerful new Sidney Lumet flick "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." another brilliant moving picture by a living (he's 83!!!) master. Go see it. Now. And tell me what you think.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lost in History vol. 43 - CHANGE-A-LUJAH!

Some of you might be familiar with Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir. You might have seen the blond pompadour’d preacher spitting verse about the evils of capitalism in the midst of Times Square, that hedonistic Disney orgy. You may have passed cash into the collection plate (donations support the non-profit church) at a performance in St. Marks-In-The-Bowery church; we hope you raised your hands and shouted AMEN, BROTHER! during any of his year-round sermons. You may have been trapped inside a Starbucks while the good Reverend was attempting to exorcize the cash register, much to the dismay of the baristas and police officers — Billy has been arrested over 40 times; there is also a cease and desist order that bars him from within 100 feet of every Starbucks in California. You may have found him inspirational, irritating, arrogant, ostentatious, ear-splitting, or all of the above. You might think he’s being ironic or insincere. If you’ve never heard his message or just don’t get it, there’s an opportunity for all sinners and spenders this Friday when the Reverend Billy documentary What Would Jesus Buy? opens at Cinema Village.

Reverend Billy (real name: Bill Talen) is a street performer and spectacle maestro who found his calling in 1999 when he realized that the road to damnation is paved with 17% interest credit cards. Having developed his persona in San Francisco, Reverend Billy moved his portable spectacle to NYC in the 1990s, right in the midst of Giuliani’s sanitization and homogenization of Times Square. The church has grown: from street-corner speeches decrying the soullessness of Disney to a thirty-four-member choir in matching red robes, an eight-member band (The Not Buying It Band) and a choir conductor and choreographer, savitri d, Talen’s wife and collaborator. Through the expansion, Reverend Billy’s message has stayed direct and deep-hitting: we’ve replaced personal interactions with over-consumption, and we’re losing our souls in the process. Not to mention destroying the planet.

The documentary truly drives home the sincerity of the Reverend’s mission, while striking fear as well as warmth into the heart of all who view its ever-pertinent message. Prepare thyself for the Shopocalypse! Broken into humorous chapters with witty animated title screens (“Baby Bling” has the requisite Madonna suckling Baby Jesus, the baby playing with an iPhone,) we follow the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on a cross-country tour, singing in malls, preaching on early morning television shows, visiting colleges and singing Christmas carols in front of McMansions in Texas, in the thirty days leading up to Christmas, 2005. What’s important is that each liberal, upbeat, idealistic congregation shot is interspersed with hard numbers about America’s shopping problem. We meet American families and see their mountains of debt; there are interviews with Shopping Addiction therapists, religious leaders, American Depression survivors, a stressed-out human rights lawyer and a fantastically unconvincing Wal-Mart religious preacher, who can’t spout one good thing about the Wal-martization of America. In the middle of the film the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir bus gets into a pretty terrifying accident, and this only emboldens the choir as well as the audience — no force of man or act of God can slow their mission. The Reverend and his folk reach the holy grounds of Disneyland on Christmas Day, for one final action.

Upon first viewing, one would think it a film that preaches (pardon the pun) to the converted, but during a post-screening interview, director Rob VanAlkemade beamed as he informed us of conservative Christian groups across the country applauding the film and calling it a bastion of true Christian values. At the advance screening, we were also treated to a special performance, by the Stop Shopping Choir, of two original songs that they perform while on tour: the title track of “What Would Jesus Buy” and “Shopocalypse.” You may think Reverend Billy a genius or an asshole. Regardless, he’s a true New Yorker, one with a message for the masses that, if taken to heart, would result in a lot less post-holiday heartache and a lot less crap for the closets.