Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Provenance of Beauty


By Claudia Rankine. Directed by Melanie Joseph and Shawn Sides. The Foundry Theatre (performed on a bus through South Bronx). (CLOSED)

Critics willingly admit to not knowing much about the South Bronx before the "travelogue" The Provenance of Beauty, performed on a bus by Sarah Nina Hayon and on a recording through headphones by Raúl Castillo and Randy Danson. Their only complaint is that some of the passages become too verbose and preachy, but overall critics find the journey effective, thanks not only to the sounds in the bus, but outside as well (microphones outside the bus pick up sounds from the streets).

New York Post A+
(Frank Scheck) The enterprising Foundry Theatre has staged shows everywhere from an East Village coffee shop ("Etiquette") to private apartments ("Open House"), but it has outdone itself with "The Provenance of Beauty." Performed on a bus roaming the South Bronx, this unique and brilliantly conceived show is the hippest journey in town. It's theatrical tourism, with plenty of attitude. Created by artistic producer Melanie Joseph and poet Claudine Rankine (who also scripted), the piece presents an opinionated view of a place most theatergoers hardly know.

Backstage A
(Leonard Jacobs) As the bus crosses the Willis Avenue Bridge tying Spanish Harlem to the Bronx, recollections and reflections, performed live by Sarah Nina Hayon and on recording by Raúl Castillo and Randy Danson, provide color and light to a slice of Gotham that is rapidly gentrifying. As it continues, Rankine seems to be warning us. Don't forget, she seems to say, that as something physical is saved, something intangible is lost. The narrative also includes sightseeing information, but it's communicated saucily enough to underscore Rankine's point. There's a pretty Con Edison station "wrapped in its façade of a refurbished, restored, suburban condo." There's the vast and imposing American Banknote building, under renovation to become "the cultural and commercial hub of a revitalized Hunt's Point." There's the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, a foreboding floating jail in which visitors "pass through the stink emanating from the waste-treatment facility on the right and the Fulton Fish Market on the left." Abandoned streets and manufacturing spaces still abound, of course, but there are landscaped parks, thriving shops, and also the tale of La Lupe, the legendary Cuban-American singer who remains an emblem of feverish local pride.

Gothamist A
(John Del Signore) Along the way, Rankine's spellbinding text, recorded by two actors, reveals itself as the proud yet resentful voice of the Bronx itself, and draws provocative connections between past and present, potential and reality, borough and city, and—most affectingly—the exterior of the bus and the inside of the visitors' heads. These recorded voices are greatly enhanced by Geoff Abbas's exquisite sound design, which uses microphones on the exterior of the bus to make the sounds of the sidewalks incredibly intimate—a man sitting outside a construction site coughs, and you hear it through your headphones. Throughout the tour, spontaneous moments of street theater reveal themselves; a boy lobs a basketball to his friend over a shop awning, a tattered American flag is spotted through the bus skylight, neighbors glare at the gawkers in the bus. Near the journey's brilliant conclusion, as the bus pauses by an overly optimistic So Bro condo, Barbara Corcoran is derisively quoted, saying, "The South Bronx is the last housing frontier close to New York City." So if the Bronx voices speaking through headphones contain notes of bitterness, you really can't blame them; most of us visiting from "New York City" won't be back, only our sewage.

The New York Times A-
(Charles Isherwood) The narration is spoken in smooth, flowing tones by Raúl Castillo and Randy Danson on tape, and the affable Sarah Nina Hayon in person. Some passages are precious or arch, more empty verbiage than sense: “Ultimately the life of a place is placeless. It overflows. It waits for me to coincide with you in the same instant it waits for you to coincide with me. Now here we are despite our individual beginnings, our various islands of birth.” O.K., whatever. You can tune in and tune out at will... “The Provenance of Beauty” is directed by Ms. Joseph and Shawn Sides, but of traditional drama there is not much, save for a lovely moment near the end of the tour, in which an emissary from the insulated cocoon of the bus enters the life of the city on the other side of the windows. The action is mundane — just a matter of somebody’s stepping off a bus — but it takes on a strange, startling significance in the context of this elegant meditation on a pocket of the city you might never think of exploring with guidebook in hand. You’ve come to see with a new immediacy that the distance between two streets, two neighborhoods or two people, between a blighted past or a promising future, between fertility and waste, is as great or as small as we choose to make it.

Time Out NY B+
(Helen Shaw) Beauty is a provocative, layered work, with one serious weakness. Rankine’s text—full of pseudoprofound statements like “identity is time passing”—works best when it keeps to plain speaking. The performers occasionally lapse into the preachy, waltz-time swing of the poetry reader, and what has felt fresh begins to dry into staleness. But these moments pale before the larger project, which is nothing less than forcing audiences to desegregate their urban experience—if only for 90 minutes. The South Bronx has revitalized itself despite the rest of us (Hayon’s delivery reserves particular venom for quoting real-estate queen Barbara Corcoran, who has called SoBro a neighborhood “close to New York”), and director-cocreator Melanie Joseph shows us its accomplishments. The city as self-healing, vibrant and infinitely diverse? That’s a project we can all get on board with.

New Yorker B
(Unsigned) The perception-changing piece, created by Melanie Joseph and Claudia Rankine, dares us to find the slums and correctional centers beautiful, even as it turns socioeconomic difference into an uneasy spectator sport. Take a good look now, it tells us, because the borough is as ephemeral as theatre itself.

New York Post A+ 14; Backstage A 13; Gothamist A 13; The New York Times A- 12; TONY B+ 11; New Yorker B 10; TOTAL: 73/6 = 12.17 (A-)

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