‘Under the Radar’ History Plays Are Over the Top and Up in the Hills

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

This is the seventh year of the Under the Radar theater festival hosted by New York’s Public Theater and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. The festival runs for two weeks and features plays from around the world.  The works are presented at the Public Theater and other venues near it. Several of the plays are history works. We chose two to review – ‘Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good),’ about Andy Warhol’s 1960s movies, and ‘Bonanza,’ about the history of an abandoned Colorado mining town.

Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good)

La MaMa Theater
66 E. Fourth St.
New York, N.Y.

Patrons who visit the La MaMa Theater to see this play confront a large white screen when they enter.  Ushers take them behind the screen to show them several sets for the play.  They are then seated on the other side of the screen, wondering what in the world is going on. This is La MaMa, the great experimental theater, but still, this is bizarre.

Then, like magic, the play begins. The play takes place behind the screen but is turned into a black and movie shown on the other side of it. The audience watches the play as a movie. The effect is sensational.

The ensemble of actors (Johanna Freiburg, Sean Patten, Berit Stumpf, Sarah Thorn, Bastian Trost and Simon Will) of the Gob’s Squad ensemble arrive on the set and announce that they are going to make ‘The Kitchen,’ a 1965 movie based on the avant garde underground film style of pop artist and cultural icon Andy Warhol. What follows is a nearly two hour long parody of the slow moving, vapid, cult movies of Warhol. The actors have no plot and a thin script, but a lot of enthusiasm. The strangeness of the ‘film,’ like the oddness of all Warhol movies, starts with actor Bastian announcing that he will play the character Bastian except when others play Bastian. After an hour, the actors go out into the audience and corral volunteers to put into the movie as additional ‘actors.’

The actors are perplexed by the slow drama just like the Warhol actors seemed 45 years ago, when they became underground media darlings through the films. At one point, an actor whispers to another, who is doing nothing, “Don’t overdo it!” Later, a bare-chested actor in sunglasses, a wild jacket and pronounced strut proudly tells the ensemble, “I’m a cliché!”

There is a lot of historical reference in the play. One actor tells another that they can’t hang out like they hang out at Starbucks because there is no Starbucks in 1965. Various play props are tossed out because they are contemporary, but corn flakes boxes are kept in, with great glee. The actors talk about the sexual revolution, 1965 fashions and snort lines of instant coffee to get high. They proclaim that movies are historical documents, like books, and what they are doing in the film will, 100 years in the future, serve as history for Americans about life in 1965 – presented by Andy Warhol.

Warhol gained a lot of notoriety for his paintings, such as the Campbell’s soup can and Marilyn Monroe, but he was publicized for his films, too. He made sixty of them between 1963 and 1968, when one of his female screenwriters shot and nearly killed him. Many of the movies were nothing but hours long scenes of dull action, such as “Empire,” an eight hour view of the Empire State Building at night. Others chronicled gay life in New York. They were made at The Factory, his midtown offices, and starred his wild eyed female actresses, who usually went by one name, such as Viva, Nico and Ondine.    

There are scenes in ‘Gob Squad’ that replicate some of Warhol’s famed oddball movies. A woman is filmed in bed for most of the play to duplicate Warhol’s ‘Sleep,’ a six hour film of a man sound asleep. A girl kisses a man, for only three minutes, a take off on Warhol’s movie “Kiss.” A man is shown having oral sex (we only see his face), as it was done in Warhol’s film “Blow Job.” A man spends an enormous time eating food, as one
in a 45 minute Warhol film in the sixties.

It is superb parody and a very funny play; you start to laugh right away. Young people in the audience who cannot know Warhol from a manhole enjoyed it as much as the baby boomers sitting next to them. From start to finish, they spoofed Warhol’s films majestically. His highly publicized films were not superb, not even good, and even now, in 2011, we can look back at them and see, well, nothing about the world of 1965.

The play is an historical delight and a nice window on the sixties, young people and Andy Warhol. Somewhere in it, an actor even says that he “only has fifteen minutes” to do something, a marvelous reference to Warhol’s famous claim that everybody is famous for fifteen minutes.

The play has its weak moments. The volunteers from the audience were not professional actors, of course, and were a bit wooden in what they did (except for the guy who got to make out with the blonde actress in bed in the show).

Even so, this Under the Radar show was a charmer. Andy Warhol would have loved it; he would have taken the cast and made a movie out of it.

PRODUCERS: Gob Squad, Public Theater, La MaMa. STARS: Johanna Freiburg, Sean Patten, Berit Stumpf, Sarah Thorn, Bastian Trost and Simon Will.

‘Bonanza’ Is No Bonanza

Robert Moss Theater
440 Lafayette St.
New York, N.Y. 

When I sat down at the multi-media play ‘Bonanza’ at the Robert Moss Theater, the first thing I thought of was the hit 1960s western television series ‘Bonanza.’ I even started humming its famous theme song.

Now that I’ve seen the play, I can assure all that Ben Cartwright, Hoss and Little Joe would not be caught dead in  this ‘Bonanza,’ a docu-play about a run down abandoned mining  town in Colorado that should have been left in the dank shaft of one of the state’s shuttered silver  mines.

‘Bonanza,’ one of the plays in the annual Under the Radar play festival, is a drama within a documentary. The audience watches the action unfold on five screens beneath a huge but rather amateurish model of the town. The story is of seven permanent residents in ‘Bonanza,’ a community that was once home to nearly 40,000 people, 36 bars, seven dance halls, numerous houses of prostitution at the height of a silver strike there in 1880 (the town even had its own baseball team). The seven people do not like each other very much and live there with no television service, no gas station within 33 miles, freezing temperatures and tons of snow in winter because they are, well, social outcasts (“we lead unscheduled lives,” said one diplomatically). They can’t get along with each other and probably could not get along with people anywhere else.

That set up might have resulted in an interesting play, but the action fizzled faster than the old silver strike. People talk and talk but nothing happens. The plot centers around local feuds and the anger of the permanent residents at the summer vacation visitors and their efforts to take over the town council.

The play about the 140 year old town has its historical moments, highlighted by a visit from former President U.S. Grant in 1881. There are dozens of nineteenth century photos of the town when it was thriving and the people who live there now tell tales of the old days and the history of the area. The silver strike ended in 1881, but another mining venture was attempted in 1912. It failed, too. In 1937 a large fire destroyed 37 buildings in town, virtually closing it. The history stories do not lead anywhere, though.

What most people sitting in the theater watching ‘Bonanza’ might not realize is that the ‘ghost town’ described in the play is not unusual. There are actually nearly six hundred abandoned communities, or ‘ghost towns,’ in the state of Colorado. Many towns in Colorado sprung up when gold or silver was discovered in the region. Mining engineers, prospectors, railroad men and service providers descended on these strike areas and created towns in a week. They all had a town hall, general store, dry goods emporium and as many bars as could be fitted within the town limits. There were hastily assembled neighborhoods, a one room schoolhouse and a quickly imported ‘school marm’ teacher.

The towns grew quickly. Everybody profited. Then, a year or so later, when all of the gold and silver had been mined out of the ground, the town was shut down as fast as it had been created. All that was left were empty buildings, dusty streets and haunted memories.

Other towns are renewed mining Meccas where small numbers of people now live, such as Bonanza. Here, we find Mark, a firefighter, Ed and Gail, an older couple, Richard, a priest from Pueblo, 190 miles away, Mary, a woman with bad teeth jailed for public urination (“she’s from astroland,” says a neighbor), and newly arrived Darva and Shikiah, who claim to see elves near the town’s creek. They argue and fight with each other 365 days a year. The only thing that unites them is their contempt for the summer vacationers.

The show is produced by Berlin, a multi-media group from Belgium. At the end of the play, one of the producers, Bart Baele, walked out on the stage to take a bow and looked as puzzled as the people in his story.

‘Bonanza’ is no Bonanza.

PRODUCERS: Bart Baele, Yves Degryse and Caroline Rochlitz. STARS: Mark, Ed and Gail, Mary, Richard, Darva and Shikiah.

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