Photo by Alice Garrard
A heartfelt moment from Robert Heide’s “The Bed,” first performed at the Off-Off-Broadway seedbed Caffe Cino in 1965, now resurrected for “OFF Stage: the West Village Fragments,” a kaleidoscope at various locations through Oct. 7.
A trek down the memories of Off-Off Broadway
By Jerry Tallmer
The year was 1960, the month November. Plays and playwrights were popping up like mushrooms all over the place in desperate, joyous non-Equity ventures where everybody worked for love and carfare (if that).
The drama editor and the assistant drama editor had decided to start a listing of such shows with next week’s issue of the Village Voice. “What’ll we call them?” said the assistant drama editor a nice young man named Michael Smith who wrote plays himself and spent many of his evenings working the lights at Joe Cino’s Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street. “I dunno,” said the drama editor. “How about Off-Off-Broadway the OOBs?”
The year was 2006, the month September. Out of the night at the intersection of 9th Street and Sixth Avenue there dashed a frantic, frazzled man shouting that he was a drama critic and that the police had just invaded a theater up on 14th Street and carted the star away a certain Miss Mae West (several decades before Off-Off-Broadway) to the Women’s House of Detention, right were we were now standing. A jail that had also provided bed and board from time to time to such grandes dames of Off-Off-Broadway as Judith Malina and Ellen Stewart.
Only now it wasn’t the long-gone Women’s House of Detention. It was an anonymous overgrown swath of greenery, and the principal witnesses to all this were a dozen journalists who had been invited to accompany and observe a preview of “OFF Stage: the West Village Fragments,” an on-foot, two-hour revisit of some of the sites and sounds of the Off-Off-Broadway classics of the ’60s. Déjà OOB all over again.
“Look, she’s out!” somebody yelled, and there she was, Miss Mae West herself (more or less) to inform the world, or this tiny corner of it, how deeply women disliked having to “spread ourselves across the public table like platters at a banquet.” Just then a half-dozen agitated persons burst on the scene waving signs and yelling things like: “Art before taxes! Let freedom ring!”
As the police (well, one pseudopoliceman) closed in, the journalists were sent trotting down Christopher Street to where, in front of a fancy menswear shop, a handful of unfortunate U.S. Marines were hollering: “Prisoner No. 1, Sir!” … “Prisoner No. 2, Sir!,” to the jailhouse sergeant who was subjecting them to various verbal and other brutalities many years before Abu Ghraib.
It was a take from Kenneth Brown’s “The Brig,” a drama which had opened, in 1963, not here, on the sidewalk of Christopher Street, but at Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater, which was then indeed up on 14th Street, and where indeed Julian and Judith would not long later get busted by the feds.
There was hardly time to contemplate the various ironies here involved when a very real fire engine came screaming through narrow Christopher Street toward Sheridan Square, leaving the Marine grunts to their mistreatment as the journalistic party was shepherded along past the Northern Dispensary to what was once the Sheridan Square Playhouse, 99 Seventh Avenue South, sometime home of the Circle Rep and Joe Chaikin’s Open Theater.
There, at a streetside café table and beneath a sign on the onetime playhouse that said “STORE TO LEASE,” sat two men and one woman discussing such matters as masculine rivalry and babies and twins (the woman didn’t like twins).
A red double-decker tour bus went by; nobody on it paid the least attention to what was transpiring dramatically at ground level: a smidgeon of Maria Irene Fornes’s “The Successful Life of Three,” developed by the Open Theater at this venue before bowing at Judson Poets’ Theater in 1967.
The little knot of 12 perambulating playgoers next dashed south to Barrow Street, where they crossed Seventh Avenue and proceeded westward past two chaps arguing on the steps of a house, one of them saying belligerently: “See what’s written in tattoo ink on this hand,” and the other fellow in Robert Heide’s “West of the Moon” looking and spelling it out: “L-O-V-E.”
Almost directly across the way, in front of the Greenwich House Music School, 46 Barrow Street, a tall young woman in black was saying: “In this garden we grow nothing but rue” as she told two other women how many sprigs of that flower she had planted one a day, 2,550 in all since the disappearance seven years earlier of a man named Henery “who wouldn’t allow me to make myself ugly when I was actually pretty.” Caffe Cino was where this play, Claris Nelson’s “The Rue Garden,” was first done in 1962.
It wasn’t a very long hike from there around the elbow of Commerce Street to the Blue Mill Tavern and its next-door neighbor, the Cherry Lane Theater, most storied of all Greenwich Village theatrical venues among a million other things, for the Barr-Wilder-Albee Playwrights’ Workshop that sprouted there.
In front of the Blue Mill, two winged angels were in what seemed like deep, hostile discussion with an Adam and an Eve. Some minutes later the stage lights suddenly went out. The stage lights were a nearby street lamp. It presently came back on to illuminate more of this (rather long) passage from “And He Made a Her,” by Doric Wilson, a work that had advanced in 1961 from the Cino to the Cherry Lane.
At every new locale the journalistic delegation acquired a new guide. The immediate one, an elongated actor, was suddenly thrown up against a wall and hustled off to jail by a man in a black Mafioso hat a vengeful fed, one presumes at the intersection of Barrow and Bedford.
Left to shift for themselves, the journalists paused in front of 73 Bedford, where a man and a woman in William M. Hoffman’s “Goodnight, I Love You,” another Cino product were kicking life around over the telephone. “Why do I always dream about red-headed lesbians?” is the last thing anyone heard while scurrying back uptown on Seventh Avenue.
Presumably not dreaming about red-headed lesbians were the two males on a bed, right there on the sidewalk along Seventh Avenue, in Robert Heide’s “The Bed” (Cino, 1965). “Think we should get up?” said one of the bedmates. “Drop dead!” said the other. A loud, unflattering remark was thrown into the mix from someone in a bypassing car of Friday-night bridge-and-tunnel yahoos. To which, from the sidewalk, some guardian of the arts shot back: “It’s a show, asshole!”
The bed floated was towed slowly up Seventh Avenue, past Greenwich Clocksmiths, past Village Cleaners, the actors still acting, as the subway rumbled beneath it, the No. 20 bus went past, southbound, parallel to it.
At the corner across from Villa Pazzo, a slice of Robert Patrick’s “The Haunted House” (Cino, 1964): Angry man, solo, with intensity, a straw hat lying at his feet: “We have to get out Because we need to, we have to. We live in such a crowd. We are such a crowd, every one of us is other people that have come at us all our lives like cookie cutters.”
Back across Seventh Avenue to Bleecker Street, down Bleecker to Cornelia Street, down Cornelia to where, in the small space beside three huge parked trucks, a young man and young woman are happily jitterbugging while a tall, mordant drag queen rages: “I am losing my faggot mind. I’m gong insane.”
It is now 8:05; and the monitors are a bit more than halfway through “OFF Stage: the West Village Fragments.” The action before them is directly in front of 29 Cornelia Street. Joe Cino’s miraculous joint was 31 Cornelia Street. And the piece at hand is Lanford Wilson’s unforgettable “The Madness of Lady Bright” which seared its way into birth at the Cino in 1964.
Among the onlookers on the sidewalk are a pretty girl and the guy she’s with. It’s obvious that the girl’s curiosity has been aroused. Her guy spots somebody jotting something in a notebook. “What’s going on?” the girl’s guy asks. “A performance,” replies the journalist. “What for?” the guy asks. “For me to write about it,” says the journalist, as he scuttles off to catch up with the others.
Who are now contemplating a gentleman in a silk shirt and skirt, rising from the sidewalk against a concrete arch to declaim, with high emotion: “Blasted fore & aft by cocks I stand astride in the windy park. Little birds peck at my bare toes …
” The words are from “Freddy’s Monologue,” by Diane di Prima (Cino, 1968), and this corner of Cornelia at West 4th Street is close to where dancer Freddy Herko, one of the Andy Warhol people, jumped from a window to his death in 1964.
At Sixth Avenue, now, not Seventh, there are young women at each end of the crosswalk singing, intoning, crooning: “Dionysus, God of joy! Dionysus, God of joy!” and in a moment, in front of the Washington Square Methodist Church, we come upon a dozen healthy-looking young folk, male and female, stripped down to bikinis, linking and swaying and moaning and gasping in simulated Dionystic copulation a la Richard Schechner and his Performance Group’s “Dionysus 69” except that back then they didn’t wear even bikinis, and it is to be doubted that simulation is exactly what Richard Schechner who once stood on a chair and stripped himself naked during a Living Theater performance at BAM had in mind.
The homestretch now. MacDougal Street, the Provincetown Playhouse, three actors and an accordionist with a lampshade over his (or her) face in a few nice moments from Roslyn Drexler’s “Home Movies” (Judson Poets and then this Playhouse, 1964) that bring back for me evocation of wonderful Sudie Bond in her bunny slippers, and Gretel Cummings, and Al Carmines, and George Bartenieff, and Barbara Ann Teer, and all the others in the original.
Moving right along. Bleecker Street. The Circle-in-the-Square (not the first one, the second one), closed now, where before a sign that reads: Single User Retail Space To Rent, a weird, squeaky baseball game is in progress between a puppeteer and her two doubly-masked marionettes. The play is “The Recluse,” by Paul Foster (Café La Mama, 1965, following its development at this locale by the Barr-Wilder-Albee unit in 1962).
Directly across Bleecker Street, the Village Theater, formerly Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate. A fellow in front of it is giving an unwanted (and endless) swimming lesson to a woman who strenuously protests: “I know nothing about swimming and suddenly I’m supposed to have everything under my belt.” The playwright? None other than Sam Shepard with “Red Cross” (Judson Poets, 1966). Shepard was once a waiter at the Gate.
A bypassing male in his 20s is invited to join the peripatetic playgoing. “Do I look like a tourist?” he snaps. “No thanks.”
It’s true. Just realized it. Tourists is exactly what we look like, and for the past two hours have been acting like. Hardened, sophisticated New York journalists hah! Posh! Pah!
Quickly now, to the end. Turn left at Thompson. Make one’s way past some howlings about “Free Theater” and “Art before taxes” followed by the soft, defiant singing of “America the Beautiful.” A side door gives entry to Judson Memorial Church, where the Reverends Howard Moody and Al Carmines and poet Robert Nichols and artist/dancer Robert Rauschenberg started their part of the whole thing, once upon a time. In a large white space graced by a basketball hoop there is in progress a fragmentary recreation of Gertrude Stein and Al Carmines’s magical 1967 “In Circles”:
I recollect that there is no hurry. Why do the Indians make China. They make Indo china.
Leaves for today.
A circle is royalty.
Royal circles are distinguished by their color.
Remain in a circle …
A Neapolitan noble is a Neapolitan noble. And women are that. Do you know the brother. Poor brother he is dead. He was killed in the army … Let us circle. We circle around …
And circle out into the night. At the corner of Sixth Avenue, as I head for my bus, I swear I hear: “Dionysus, God of joy! Dionysus, God of joy!” And think I am going nuts. Déjà vu all over again. Until I remember that “OFF Stage: the West Village Fragments” gives three tours because, yes, these are tours every night, at 7, 7:30, and 8, and what I’m now hearing must be from this night’s tour No. 2. The actors and directors are obviously and regrettably too many to cite even one; the producing organization is Peculiar Works Project; the tickets phone number is (212) 352-3101, or www.theatermania.com.