Thursday, January 25, 2018

Review: Cute Activist Brings Activism Up to Date

By Ed Malin

Cute Activist by Milo Cramer will entertain and stimulate you on many levels.  Morgan Green directs this new play, produced by The Bushwick Starr with New Saloon, in association with Clubbed Thumb.
This is an adventurous, experimental play for characters who are not prone to be experimental. They live in a world where being an activist is illicit. It becomes more and more obvious that people in this world only associate with people from the same economic stratum.  Whether they know it or not, these folks are helping to drive the gentrification of their neighborhood.  Or perhaps they are aware, and choose their friends and lovers to keep out thoughts of any other kind of life.  In the prologue, a school class discusses viable careers.  The janitor helps clean up a mess, and his daughter, tellingly, asks “can I please be in your Middle Class?”
Above Meredith Ries’s multi-colored set hang seventeen television monitors. These show exterior images, or various live feeds of the stage from different angles.  Though we can see variety of perspective, we also see repetitive normalcy.  This can only benefit our protagonist, Jen (Madeline Wise), a mid-twenties architect who is an underling in her firm’s battle to rebuild an entire town.  She and her imposing boss, the “Landlorde” (David Greenspan) go down the list of things in the area.  Some questions, such as “where’s the contemporary art gallery” provoke laughter, while others such as “where’s the middle income area” have no answer.  When the Landlorde walks about, we hear clinking chains.  He present as a vampire, or a “war lord”.  He accidentally on purpose hears “terrorist” instead of “activist”.  He plans to remove the one small house which lies in the path of the planned erection of a skyscraper.
At a fancy restaurant, Jen goes on a date with Gil (Ronald Peet).  Gil, who is African-American, comes from a similarly privileged background and goes to great lengths to cultivate the nurturing side of his personality, is someone Jen really wants to like, or wants to be seen approving of.  As Jen and Gil sit at their table, next to a big inflatable donut which has a bite taken out of it, they pretentiously order in French.  Their rather normal order (salade verte et vin rouge) is not satisfactorily delivered by their terrified, impoverished waiter (Annie Henk), which requires an apology from the manager (Elizabeth Kenny).  As Gil visits the restroom and the Waiter and Manager secretly plot to assemble any and all Activists, Jen sees a large, puppet Mouse (Puppeteer: Milo Cramer) on her table.  This wild-eyed rodent rhapsodizes karaoke style (thank you, composer and arranger Deepali Gupta and John Gasper) to Jen that is her destiny to become an activist.  Other animals will guide her on her way.  (The best interpretation I heard of this scene evokes the huge, inflatable rat which makes an appearance outside exploitative construction sites in New York.  Also, shall we assume the furry spirit rodent took a bite out of the donut?)
photo by Maria Baranova
The Waiter and the Manager from the restaurant are a couple, and they live (and perhaps can only afford to live) in the one little house that remains in the future skyscraper zone.  We see the couple trying to overcome their fear of communication.  What use is that kind of stuff nowadays?  Conversely, aren’t dates a little bit like job interviews? That’s Gil’s assessment, especially after dating Jen.  Is having more than one child unconscionable (because of the carbon footprint)? Can this generation only share experiences with others who went to upper-class kindergartens?  Romance may not be their mission statement.
On the monitors, we see Jen march out of The Bushwick Starr into the gentrifying neighborhood.  Is she ready to put on a jumpsuit and mask and activate her activism?  She will need to find the cave which the Landlorde said does not exist.
Jen rapidly transforms, and so does the town.  There is a cave, full of the rest of the cast wearing jumpsuits and masks and eating donuts. How does the millennial mass come together and make plans?  It’s literally a parody which gives you all the feels.  Someone wonders if self-hatred is productive?  Someone else laments that having a dog inspires guilt, since no one can ever give back that much love.  Indeed, the Waiter and Manager are the main activist organizers.  But that means the activist meeting, which is in their basement, is an obstacle in the path of “progress”.
More masterful dialogue and animal magic follows.  A big puppet blue bird at the end suggests that if we work together, the people can be mightier than the wealthy vampire.
This production is the work of a group of wonderful innovators.  The Bushwick Starr and New Saloon Theater Company (Madeline Wise, Milo Cramer and Morgan Green, co-founders) joining with the vastly influential Clubbed Thumb is quite an event.  This well-written play asks a lot more questions than it answers.  Milo Cramer’s blissfully solid wall of language, the puppets (designed by Amanda Villalobos) and the video (designed by Stivo Arnoczy) go far beyond what any of those art forms might provide on their own, providing an immersive environment which the play constantly disrupts.  Morgan Green’s direction peels away the veneer of privilege to show the inner fear most of the characters have of the Landlorde, who lives in some kind of yacht club and quips “is it a club if it’s just me?”  Cha See’s lighting design helps emphasize the great darkness which isolates budding activists.
Well, it’s 2018.  Even if you felt helpless last year, this is the year we can all work together to elect some better politicians, ones who won’t build a wall next to Mexico and will help all classes of Americans get ahead.  I’m glad that Cute Activist has dared to propose that such things are possible.  The play also pushes for the decriminalization of kissing.  It’s time to remove the artificial barriers that keep people apart.