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Theatre in Review: Bamboo in Bushwick (Working Theater at Urban Stages)

Michelle Sui, Clinton Lowe. Photo: Michael Blasé

Bamboo in Bushwick weds an uneventful naturalistic drama about gentrification to a bizarre series of fantasy sequences that seem to come from a National Geographic special. The action unfolds on a street in the neighborhood of the title, a working-class community that, in past decades, was marked by poverty and urban decay. Now the young professionals are moving in, seeking out the next cool place in which to homestead. Feeling threatened by this seemingly unstoppable tide are Edson, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who works as a handyman; Crispin, a retired Puerto Rican social worker; Magalia, a Dominican street vendor; and Swayze, a white photographer who feels grandfathered into the area thanks to his four-year residency. A photographer whose career is sputtering, he has just been tossed out by his girlfriend, who is tired of being the sole breadwinner.

Much of Bamboo in Bushwick consists of these four passing the time on the street, playing dominoes and complaining about changes to the neighborhood. Edson has a regular gig cleaning the wall standing behind them, which seems to get a new layer of graffiti every day. (As the play begins, he is rubbing away the words "Will I be remembered?") In Aaron Minerbrook's ingenious projection design, we see Edson "wipe" away those words from the wall.

The wall must be kept clean, it transpires, because Budhi, a young Korean-American artist, and Nirt, her associate, have been hired to cover the wall with a mural that will add to the neighborhood's attractiveness. The others aren't too happy about this, and much of the play consists of awkward, slightly tense interactions between the locals and these gifted interlopers, perfectly nice young people who bring with them unwelcome signs of changing times. Already, the diaspora has begun: Edson has moved his family to East New York and another member of the neighborhood has decamped for Newark. It's a situation that seems to promise drama, especially since the author, Ed Cardona, Jr., has drawn the usual lines of battle: Budhi and Nirt, successful professionals, are also members of minority groups, and Swayze, who has styled himself as one of the soon-to-be dispossessed, is really a middle-class guy from Queens, and, based on the evidence, is more interested in hanging around on the block than pursuing his dream.

But rather than following the play of this conflict, which is profoundly reshaping New York as well as many other cities, Bamboo in Bushwick takes the off-ramp into surrealism, and suddenly the stage is filled with actors playing penguins.

According to the script, the wall on the street where Budhi is painting her mural is "a window to past and present imagery of Bushwick...as well as a window/portal into a parallel universe of living murals, a mural-verse." This admittedly unique concept doesn't begin to explain the penguins -- and, later, the polar bears -- but there you are. The action of Bamboo in Bushwick alternates scenes with Edson, Budhi, and the others with scenes of penguins having their existences threatened by polar bears who move in, take over, and dine on feathered delicacies. There's also a sequence in which, in a kind of suicide mission, a group of penguins form a totem pole and freeze to death -- but I see I'm losing you; time to move on!

Why Cardona felt the need to create this elaborate and totally inorganic metaphor for the fate of a Brooklyn neighborhood is anyone's guess, especially since gentrification is practically all that anyone talks about in Bushwick. If the street scenes dawdle -- they are about as exciting as one of those domino games -- at least they provide some enjoyable local color; in the "mural-verse" scenes, one feels nothing but pity for actors who have to run around in the stylized penguin and polar bear costumes designed by Sarita Fellows. Every time the action switches to the North Pole, the possibility of Bamboo in Bushwick as a mordant, relevant drama dies a little faster.

The cast does the business of playing both humans and animals like the pros they are: Arisael Rivera (Edson), José Antonio Melián (Crispin), Edna Lee Figueroa (Magalia), John J. Concado (Swayze), and Michelle Sui (Budhi). Nirt is lucky enough to have a standout scene, in which he disabuses the others of the notion that he comes from a privileged background, and Clinton Lowe makes the most of it.

Raul Abrego's set design includes a tree bearing wind chimes, surrounded by a low fence on which are hung bits of colored glass; it's an intriguing detail, even if it is never fully explained. Harry Feiner's lighting is solid, Fellows' animal costumes are rather imaginative, Lawrence Schober's sound, which includes the hum of traffic and the rattle of the subway, are well-done. Minerbrook's videos include fast-paced montages of street life between the scenes, and some rather abstract renderings of the North Pole.

Bamboo in Bushwick is part of an intriguing program sponsored by Working Theater to develop plays set in each of the city's boroughs; the process involves going to neighborhoods and listening to the locals. This is the same methodology by which Lynn Nottage, acting on her own, produced the Pulitzer Prize winner Sweat. In the case of Bamboo in Bushwick, Cardona hasn't been able turn his material into a workable drama. Penguins --really? --David Barbour

(2 May 2017)

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