UP CLOSE Festival: Theater of the Absurd meets history for children and is a tribute to Jane Jacobs

The rag rug becomes the sanctuary of Church of St. Luke in the Fields. (Photos by Tequila Minksy)

BY TEQUILA MINSKY | Pizza Rat greets those entering the theater, which is in the lower level of the Archive Building on Christopher Street.

Charming New York-accented narrator Pizza Rat (Marisol Rosa-Shapiro) is the host/tour guide through Greenwich Village, the environs of Jane Jacobs.

Now in its second year, the UP CLOSE Festival, running through January 4 at the New Ohio Theatre at 154 Christopher St., is an experiment in using immersive theater to connect young New Yorkers with the histories of the space they inhabit.

Intended for those age 5 and up, after a 10-minute unstructured interactive pre-show exploration, of installations about local urban history, the show begins in earnest.

Pizza Rat greets the new comers before even entering the theater.

When slightly settled, Pizza Rat asks: What was here a long time ago? The peanut gallery responds: Dinosaurs! Cavemen! Pizza Rat asks: Who were the people before Henry Hudson arrived in 1609? Going on, she explains about the Native American inhabitants— the Lenape— who first encountered the Europeans.

With a simple streetscape rendering and Jane Jacobs’ portrait at her back, Pizza Rat gives the briefest précis of Jane Jacobs’ thinking— how the grid of streets and verve in them, shops and life in public places, are the lifeblood of the city.

The streets so touted by Jane Jacobs, the form that gives cities life.

And, in this theater space, the children are about to visit places in this neighborhood.

But first, there is the explanation of how oysters were the basis of the Lenape diet. Then Poquauhock (Quahog) shells (these clams thrive in estuaries) are distributed and put into a rhythmic exercise followed by a children’s collective activity.

Clam shells from the estuaries of the river used for rhythm and other interactivity.

Children congregate on the rag rug in one of the 15-minute theatrical pieces, visiting Church of St. Luke in the Fields, a sanctuary in the 17th, 19th, and 20th century. Kids are drafted into participating as the corn, beans, and squash, regular diet of early residents.

Then on to a Thompson Street chess shop. Volunteer children demonstrate the moves of chess pieces on the black and white checkered floor.

The chessboard becomes the stage, with a program written by Tiffany Zorrilla, directed by Marisa Blankier, and devised and performed by: Christopher Rashee-Stevenson, Tyler Diaz, Jahmorei Snipes, Tiffany Zorilla.

Bridging the West and East Village, Lower East Side activism is noted.

There’s a lot of history to digest in this lively theatrical experience but the actors are so engaging that when content goes over heads— adults as well as children– the audience absorbs what it can amidst all the fun.

Midway through the afternoon with a smile on her face, one mom watches her totally engaged daughter and son. She’s visiting from D.C. with family in Queens and observed,  “This is the best children’s theater I’ve ever seen!” Like many other parents there, she googled “things to do for kids” and happily discovered this unique children’s experience. There were a number of grandparents in the mix too.

Lastly, theatergoers meet the white-coated research scientists of “SHSH—Society of Historical Sonic Happenings” from Bell Labs (now Westbeth) who catch environment and street sounds from notated historical events and contain them in jars. One of the ‘mad’ scientists addresses the assembled, “In this room we can have mini time travel for a brief period.” Specimens from past centuries, meticulously labeled, are among the jars filling the ‘labs’ shelves.

The scientists of SHSH, written and directed by Adrienne Kapstein, collect sound specimens.

The mad scientist and the engaged theatergoer.

Jane Jacobs and her fight for Washington Square Park are never forgotten. Forming a circle, the entire room of parents and kids reenact a ribbon tying ceremony that inaugurated no traffic in Washington Square Park. UP CLOSE is literally bringing community into the theatrical experience.

Traveling from Greenpoint, Jordana Jacobs (no relation), attending with son Arno, 6, commented, “This fills a real need. There is not a lot of opportunity for oral storytelling outside of religious, geographical, or ethnic communities. It’s really lovely to connect with the diverse New York community and share our history together.” And, when concepts are not quite understood by her son, she added how happy she is to just to have seeds planted.

Jane Jacobs looks on the proceedings kindly.

A wealth of talent—writers, directors, performers and project advisors– created this imaginative piece of theater, directed by Sara Morgulis and produced by interdisciplinary artist/educator Peter Musante and collaborator Summer Shapiro.

Featured work is by Spellbound Theatre Company, Perfect City Marisa Blankier and Christopher Rashee-Stevenson and Adrienne Kapstein with young teens participating  as “apprentice archivists.”

UP CLOSE Festival at New Ohio Theatre runs:  Tues. Dec. 31, 2 p.m.; Thurs. Jan. 2, 7 p.m.; Fri. Jan. 3, 7 p.m.; and Jan. 4, 11 a.m.

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