theater review

Downtown Theater Comes Back, Slowly and Then All at Once

Katie Madison and Jarrett Murray. Photo: Maria Baranova

The springtime torrent of production has broken through the shutdown-that-was with thrilling force. On the second weekend in May, folks in New York could go to at least three music-and-theater festivals in Manhattan; on some parts of the island, it was hard to find a place where performance wasn’t. As Broadway waits for September, the more limber (that is, nonprofit) producers are not just ready to present work — they have barrels of the stuff, plenty to fill up an ad hoc festival season. Rows of empty storefronts are less horrifying when communities fill them with temporary art, and the fear that visitors won’t return to prop up New York’s economy seems silly after you’ve been downtown for a while. There was, the other day, an actual line of tourists waiting to take a photo with the Wall Street bull.

The current New York performance jamborees, though, aren’t catering primarily to newcomers or out-of-towners. (This is not the Frieze Art Fair. The money in play at Frieze could power roughly a thousand of these festivals.) They’re very much of the small-wedding variety: You’re nearly guaranteed to recognize at least a few people seated near you. Still, Downtown Live — a collaboration by the Downtown Alliance, the Off–Off Broadway theater the Tank, and the producing entity En Garde Arts — did manage to cast some lures out to the wider public. The weekend I went, wanderers in the Battery drifted over to hear storytelling from James Harrison Monaco or excerpts from musical-theater composer Katie Madison’s works-in-progress, drawn by that most intriguing of all possible sights: a bunch of people enjoying something you didn’t know about.

Occupying three plazas and loading docks in the Financial District, Downtown Live uses the cow-path twistiness of lower Manhattan to seem larger than it was. You can come around a corner and find David Greenspan singing Sondheim to 30 people in an alleyway or stumble into a grim garage loading dock to hear the angel-voiced Kuhoo Verma singing standards. In all three spots, cabaret performers have had the easiest time of it, accustomed as they are to working in noisy cafés. Scripted theatrical shows have tended to be a little less robust, and each that I saw seemed a little shaky. Still, it wasn’t polish but profusion that was the point. Bouncing off the train at Whitehall Street, I felt like a cue ball getting shot into the rack at the break. Bang! I was able to ricochet from show to show, the old familiar fear of missing something finally erasing the recent awfulness of missing everything.

Somehow, En Garde Arts is also producing another, unrelated piece downtown: A Dozen Dreams, a lovely and deep-spirited installation that starts in the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place. I admit that the Winter Garden is not my favorite space in lower Manhattan. The palm trees? The mall? The sweeping staircase that sweeps to nowhere? Los Angeles can keep it. But En Garde Arts and its brave founder, Anne Hamburger, are old hands at giving rather chilly public spaces new and boisterous life.

Twelve playwrights have contributed texts about their dreams, and the designer Irina Kruzhilina has interpreted each one as its own elaborate interior — each room like a Cornell box you walk through. There is no live performer: We listen to everything through headphones. We hear Caridad Svich’s meditation as huge muslin waves seem to break through the walls, or we watch a video of Ren Dara Santiago intoning her dream, reflected in a pool. “We don’t know how many flaws make a masterpiece,” Santiago says, as rain falls into the water, splintering her image.

Setting off in pairs from the middle of the mall, we move quickly into behind-the-scenes corridors that have been turned into a labyrinth. We’re disoriented, not just by the weird texts (in one, Martyna Majok dreams about a man with no eyes who watches her) but also by this maze, which turns disused offices into a seemingly endless series of volumes. The design here is exquisite and well tended on all fronts, from Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting to Rena Anakwe’s sound work, but the effect is strangely similar to the tangle of the far messier, far wilder Downtown Live. Disorientation makes up for a lack of space; a twisting path conveys possibility and freedom. Perhaps it will make you think about how labyrinths have been used as healing and meditation tools. Walking the same repetitive turning pattern can help you find a sense of center — if you’ve lost it.

There is also a prayerful quality to the experimental collaboration Afrofemononomy, working with Performance Space New York and New Georges, which for a moment is everywhere at once: It’s got a show in the East Village, an installation in the PSNY courtyard where Black women are invited to relax and restore, a piece called Remembrance popping up among the Downtown Live offerings, and still more promised in the months to come. Certainly the group, a rogues’ gallery of major Black theater artists like Jackie Sibblies Drury, Eisa Davis, Kaneza Schaal, and Lileana Blain-Cruz, is not exactly making art in the old consumption model. Instead, entering an Afrofemononomy show is like being invited into a discussion as it’s still going on.

All the offerings — mostly readings or short performances — respond to the life and work of the late playwright Kathleen Collins, including her lectures on her own narrative metaphysics and one-act plays, which are wry and mystical. The group is inscribing its own concerns on Collins, whose writing is important and underexposed. (Why haven’t we had a major revival of her eerie, operatic The Brothers?) A Collins character is often a woman trying to find room for the divine even as she is harassed by family life or an irritatingly entitled white woman. The project both presents her work and tries to offer cures for its complaints: The Afrofemononomy book-in-hand reading of Collins’s The Reading takes place in the PSNY courtyard, which also contains the installation Last night, I dreamt I danced in the image of God. That work fills the narrow space with shimmering rain curtains, food, and music, remaking it into a sparkling place of healing, dance, and welcome.

Like any other exercise, artgoing takes stamina. We look like a sedentary bunch, sitting in our chairs facing in one direction — could anything be easier? But it does take practice, and we all seemed to be relearning. The singer Ellen Winter came roaring into her Downtown Live performance and so exhausted herself jumping around for her first song that she asked, rather breathlessly, if she could do the next one lying down. I know exactly how she felt — there was a bit of participation at the end of The Reading, and when I wobbled to my feet, I wondered if my muscles had atrophied during shutdown. But as the weekend with its dozen performances went on, I found the old habits and comforts creeping back. And at show after show, a smiling actor or vocalist would look out and say, “It’s so good to see you all … together.” I got to more than a dozen performances, all strange and wild and unalike. But each started the same way: An artist would walk out, take off a mask, and glow. It feels glorious to be an audience again, but the most pleasure comes from seeing performers’ joy at standing in front of one.

Downtown Live is downtown on May 22 and 23.
The Reading and Last Night, I Dreamt I Danced in the Image of God are at Performance Space New York on May 22 and 23.
A Dozen Dreams is at Brookfield Place through May 30.

Downtown Theater Comes Back, Slowly and Then All at Once