Theater: Village explores diversity, American style

Photo by J. Stephen Brantley The highs and lows of life, all in one night, in “I Like to Be Here: Jackson Heights Revisited.”

Photo by J. Stephen Brantley
The highs and lows of life, all in one night, in “I Like to Be Here: Jackson Heights Revisited.”

BY SCOTT STIFFLER    Whether from just across the border or the other side of the world, they come to America, wanting — needing — to find a better life, and often find themselves working subsistence jobs amidst unsafe conditions. Two plays in the Theater:Village Festival, set a century apart, bring that plight into sharp focus while illustrating how little has changed despite how far we’ve come. A pair of additional works focus on change, as experienced by those who’ve put considerable distance between themselves and their roots.

Awareness of heritage, and the desire to build on the positive aspects of its legacy, is something David Van Asselt has spent considerable time shaping into a cohesive vision — realized for the first time last year, as a collaborative effort that became an annual event: the Theater:Village Festival.

The artistic director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (244 Waverly Place), Van Asselt says the notion of a festival came about “because I’d been looking for a way to bring attention to the West Village as a place where theater goes on, and where it has always been going on. When [Eugene] O’Neill came to New York in 1916 with his Provincetown Players, it was MacDougal Street where they [established a base and] first presented “The Emperor Jones.” The West Village is where Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett and Sam Shepherd were first done.”

Four unique companies champion a common cause

Having been a presence in the small world of NYC independent theater for quite some time, Van Asselt already “had a relationship with Angelina Fiordellisi at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Rattlestick was producing at Cherry Lane prior to this [having our own space], and she thought it was a great idea. Then I talked to Randy Sharp, who runs Axis Theatre Company, and they were very enthusiastic. So I approached Robert [Lyons] at the New Ohio Theater, and we all began getting together as a group. The idea was that we’d decide on a theme or a playwright.” 

Last year was devoted to “The Town Hill Plays,” a cycle of five works by Lucy Thurber — but long-term, that format wasn’t viable for what the festival founders determined would be an annual event. “It’s not often a playwright writes linked plays like Lucy Thurber did,” says Van Asselt. “You almost never see quartets or quintets. So even last year, we knew that 2014 would be [geared towards] a theme. We tossed around a number of different ideas, and settled on ‘E Pluribus,’ which is mainly about the celebrating the diversity of culture in New York.”

THEATER:VILLAGE FESTIVAL presents E PLURIBUS

Through Oct. 5
At Axis Theatre, Cherry Lane Theatre, New Ohio Theatre & Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
Tickets $10-$40
Four-Show Pass: $95
To Order: 866-811-4111
Or theatervillage.com

The festival is also a celebration of diversity within, and cooperation among, the West Village theater community. “It shows that theaters can work together in a meaningful way,” says Van Asselt, echoing the festival press material’s declaration that “Theater:Village signifies a major shift in the ways theaters work. It challenges the assumptions that we must cut back and compete more fiercely with each other in order to survive as nonprofit arts institutions, and instead promotes collaboration and community-conscious programming.” The realization of that promise, this year, is:

I LIKE TO BE HERE:   JACKSON HEIGHTS REVISITED, OR, THIS IS A MANGO
New Ohio Theatre’s production of this multi-writer play has new characters meeting those already established during the course of Theatre 167’s “The Jackson Heights Trilogy.” Taking place during a single, sleepless night in the most diverse neighborhood in the world, “I like to be here” serves not only as the work’s partial title, but also as a memorable line and an encapsulation of the play’s affectionate, ultimately optimistic take on what both lures and tethers people to Jackson Heights. It’s a neighborhood where empathetic cabbies, closeted cops, shop clerks, drag queens, meth heads, dosa chefs, predatory realtors, custodial workers and two-dollar dance partners coax forward their own dreams while deal with those who come off the 7 train just long enough to buy exotic spices or pay for sex. “That’s what I love about Jackson Heights,” says one character, “you never know who’s going to show up on the bad side of a half-price margarita.”

Through Sept. 27. Wed.–Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 7 p.m. Added performance Sept. 21 at 2 p.m. At the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St., btw. Greenwich & Washington Sts.). Tickets: $18 ($16 students/seniors). Visit NewOhioTheatre.org and Theatre167.org.

Photo by Theater Mitu Multiple perspectives, multi-media presentation: “Juárez: A Mythology Documentary.”

Photo by Theater Mitu
Multiple perspectives, multi-media presentation: “Juárez: A Mythology Documentary.”

JUÁREZ: A DOCUMENTARY MYTHOLOGY
Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre presents this new work by Theater Mitu that challenges us to examine the porous US/Mexico border through the eyes of those who’ve seen the highs and lows of life in and around Ciudad Juráez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. Hundreds of conversations drawn from over 200 hours of interview footage represent lives transformed by gangs, cartels, corruption, NAFTA, femicide, the War on Drugs, fear and familial honor.

Through Oct. 5. Sun.–Tues., 7 p.m., Thurs.-Fri, 8 p.m., Sat., 3 & 8 p.m. At Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (244 Waverly Place, btw. W. 11th & Perry Sts.). Tickets: $25 ($10 for theater artists/under 30, $5 students, $30 premium seating), Visit rattlestick.org.

"Solitary Light" assesses the aftermath of 1911's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  Photo (c) Dixie Sheridan

“Solitary Light” assesses the aftermath of 1911’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Photo (c) Dixie Sheridan

SOLITARY LIGHT
Axis Theatre’s world premiere musical — directed by Randy Sharp with music and lyrics by Sharp and Paul Carbonara — wanders through the streets of Lower Manhattan, assessing the fallout from 1911’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Based on historical documents and newspaper accounts, “Solitary Light” looks at the horrors of working class life, as seen (and sung) by two young politically minded immigrants in love. Using the motif of illumination — from a single star, a lone light in a factory window — the infamous disaster, which took the lives of 146 trapped workers, is used to ask why what’s widely acknowledged as a turning point in history “still occurs in factories all over the world.”

Through Oct. 4. Wed.–Sat. at 8 p.m. Additional performance Sept. 15, 8 p.m. At the Axis Theatre (One Sheridan Square, btw. Washington Pl. & W. Fourth St.). Tickets: $40 ($30 students/seniors). Visit axiscompany.org.

Photo by Lisa Ramirez The Cherry Lane Theatre’s 90th anniversary season kicks off, with “To The Bone.”

Photo by Lisa Ramirez
The Cherry Lane Theatre’s 90th anniversary season kicks off, with “To The Bone.”

TO THE BONE
Cherry Lane Theatre’s new play by Lisa Ramirez puts the politics of “Solidary Light” into a modern context, by delving into the lives of Latina immigrant poultry workers. Created after extensive interviews conducted by Ramirez during a six-month stint in New York’s Sullivan County, the play is written in the tradition of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” to “give the audience a close up look into the lives of the invisible work force that puts food on our tables.”

Through Oct. 4. Mon.–Fri. at 7 p.m., Sat. at 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. At the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce St., at Seventh Ave. South). Tickets: $40 ($25 for 30 years and under, $20 rush, $10 student). Visit cherrylanetheatre.org. 

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