Signs of spring and other sure things

Hope sprouts eternal: On March 10 in Tompkins Square Park, daffodils by the southeast entrance. | Photo by Ellen Mandel

BY MICHAEL LYDON Spring, spring, we’ve made it to another spring! Sure, call my wife and me sunny optimists, but frankly dear, we don’t give a damn. Each year we defiantly declare Dec. 21 to be the first day of spring.

Why? Because that’s when the sun reverses its course and starts on its welcome and warming trek back north. By Groundhog Day we start seeing buds fattening on Tompkins Square Park’s elm trees, and by Valentine’s Day we’ve spotted the first fresh sprouts pushing bravely through the crisp mulch of last fall’s withered leaves. We call Avenue B and Seventh St. “Daffodil Corner,” because year after year its bright yellow blossoms trumpet their joyful message weeks ahead of the crocuses and tulips.

With spring the whole spirit of Tompkins changes. The dog walk fills up again with happy barkers and ball-chasers, and the oval of benches by the Hare Krishna elm fills up again with sunbathers. Kids rattle by on their skateboards, the mellow jazz band sets up shop by the Temperance fountain on Sunday afternoons, and the hawk hunters follow their prey every day with the longest telephoto lenses known to man.

A “JUDAS” FOR THE EASTER SEASON | Having recently closed a sold-out run of a black comedy, “The Cult Play,” by newcomer Topher Cusumano at E. Fourth St.’s the Paradise Factory theater, The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is hard at work rehearsing its next production, “Judas,” by Off-Off Broadway pioneer Robert Patrick. Previews at the Wild Project (195 E. Third St., btw. Aves. A & B) start April 25, 26, 27, and 28 — before a gala opening Sat., April 29. Visit without delay (the first two nights are already sold out!).

Robert Patrick’s 50+ year career began at New York’s legendary Caffe Cino with his first play, “Haunted Host.” He later became a leader in the gay theater movement. “Kennedy’s Children” is Patrick’s best-known work, though he believes “Judas” to be his best. In his telling, Christ is a young pacifist, his mother Mary a revolutionary, Pontius Pilate an urbane Roman politician, and Judas a disciple of Jesus and a protégé of Pontius Pilate, struggling to know what to believe and who to follow in this modern-dress battle of wills.

The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, founded in 2004 by life partners Craig Smith and Elise Stone, still feels like a newcomer on Downtown’s theater scene — but the actor/manager duo have been working together for almost 30 years, many of them at the late but highly esteemed Jean Cocteau Repertory on the Bowery. Five minutes into any play they put on, whether it’s Molière or Brecht, and you’ll know these folks are first class pros and seasoned veterans. Aided and abetted by a shifting band of actors and designers — John Lenartz, Josh Tyson, Amy Fitz, James Sterling, Joseph Menino, Ellen Mandel (my wife), and more — Smith and Stone act, direct, run the office, handle promotion, and, when things get hectic, sell cookies and soft drinks at the concession stand at intermission.

“Managing an Off-Broadway theater company does not get any easier as the years go passing by,” said Smith with a look somewhere between a grin and a grimace. “For one thing, there’s so much good story-telling, acting, and writing on dozens of digital television channels that I can understand why people stay home. Million-dollar Hollywood productions, that’s our competition!”

L to R: Josh Tyson as Judas and Jeffrey Marc Alkins as Jesus of Nazareth, in the upcoming Phoenix Theatre Ensemble production of Robert Patrick’s “Judas.” | Photo by Monty Stilson

LOOK OUT WORLD, HERE I COME! | So you’ve been playing the guitar for a few years, you sing a bit and have written a few tunes that you believe to be monster hits in the making. Time to sling your guitar over your shoulder and head out to an open mic. The basic deal is the same at all open mics: get to the venue 30 minutes before the show begins, sign up, wait, wait, and wait some more until the MC calls your name, then get up there and pour your heart out for your two songs, get your applause, and go home in agony because you missed an F minor chord in your intro to your second song. Well, next time you’ll hit ’em again harder!

Clubs with open mic nights come and go. Some schedule Tuesday nights at 8pm, some Saturdays at 5pm. These two websites will get you started: and Once you’re on the scene, you’ll hear about many more.

The worst open mics? Those where the MC gives long slots to a dozen favorites in the middle of the night, and you’re not one of the favorites. The best open mics? Where there’s the same favorite system, but you’re one of the lucky favorites!

Actually that’s not quite true. I’m a battle-scarred open mic veteran, and I’ve seen many clubs that rely on the “favored few” system become snooty, closed shops. The best open mic I’ve ever played begins with a lottery every Monday night, 7pm at Caffe Vivaldi (32 Jones St. just above Bleecker; Guitarist-singer-songwriter Bert Lee is the night’s genial host, and instead of coddling favorites, he presents every performer with a down-to-earth friendly spirit that brings out their best. Lee, who’s been playing in the Village since the 1960s, is also one hell of a folk-pop stylist, and the two or three songs he plays when there’s time are often the best of the night.

A NEW, FUNKY, FUN EAST VILLAGE BISTRO | Strolling down First Ave. a few doors above E. 10th St., you may think for a moment you’re Little Red Riding Hood passing her Grandma’s rose-strewn cottage. A step inside will tell you, no, it’s a cozy little start-up club called Ferns that features jazz-blues duos and trios most nights of the week. I can’t imagine a better place to unwind when you’re on your own, with that special someone, or hanging with a gang of pals (166 First Ave., btw. E. 10th & 11th Sts.;

AND IN CLOSING | “Wait a damn minute,” I hear you saying, “how can it be spring if we just got slammed by a savage nor’easter?” I’ll let Mr. Shelley, Percy Bysshe, that is, answer that: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

Ferns, on First Ave., is a funky new bistro worth the trip. | Photo via

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