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Two years ago, Theater for the New City took on polluters ("Biotech"). Last year, the company searched for compassion and sanity in an insane world ("The Patients Are Running the Asylum"). This year, they are challenging the War on Terrorism and the Bush Administration.

"Access Upheaval" is a musical comedy with some very serious and timely messages. Written and directed by Crystal Field, a veteran of street and protest theater, the play depicts the lives of three very different native New Yorkers.

Craig Meade plays an African-American born at 113 W. 103rd St. in Harlem. Alexander Bartenieff plays an Italian-American born at 3570 17th Ave. in Bensonhurst. And Michael Vazquez portrays a "New Yo-Rican" born at 2504 Zerega Ave. in the South Bronx.

Each man has his own cultural heritage, which is reflected in the music that surrounds him - gospel, Sicilian tarantellas, Latin rhythms. But they all come together when the chorus croons, "Be proud of your race. Take your place little fella."

The three men celebrate birthdays and graduations. They grow up and look for employment. Bartenieff scalps tickets in front of Madison Square Garden. Vazquez becomes a teacher. Meade ends up a doorman, who says ruefully, "I can always catch a taxi - when I’m in uniform."

Life goes on with its ups and downs until the men’s world is shaken by the events of Sept. 11, after which New York City’s diverse neighborhoods are wracked by paranoia, racism and the desire for revenge. At the same time, corporate greed destroys the economy, budget cuts cripple the educational system and real estate interests make affordable housing no more than a dream.

President George W. Bush, portrayed by a puppet, declares war from behind and above the stage. Masked actors portraying Vice President Dick Cheney and Osama Bin Laden argue over which side God is on and complain about their respective heart and kidneys. The FBI and CIA enter dressed in black and sing "Homeland Security Blues."

In the meantime, the three young men camp out at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge where they meet Butterfly (Terry Lee King), an idealistic, unisex creature who envisions the world as it should be, and Digger (Mark Marcante), an itinerant bum who teaches the hard realities of life and the difficulties in changing them.

In a manner more slapstick than didactic, Butterfly and Digger provide the spiritual guidance the men need to prevail. It is community as expressed in the city’s small, flourishing gardens that can save New York City and the country. And community is made up of individuals - the individuals onstage and the individuals in the audience.

But with its wicked humor, straight from the ’hood dancing and spirited music, "Access Upheaval" has the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. And the talented, energetic performers make sure it does indeed go down in a most delightful way.

"Access Upheaval" is not only very entertaining theater, it is also a call to action. The play speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves, or speak but are not heard. And you don’t have to agree with all its premises to recognize that here are opinions that need to be expressed.

"Access Upheaval" features the exuberant and earthy music of Joseph Vernon Banks; and scenic design by Walter Garbo, who created the movable flats and set pieces, and Mary Blanchard, who designed the 9-foot by 12-foot running screen, or "cranky," which provides continuous movement behind the actors.

Theater for the New City travels with crates and shopping bags. A wheelchair is transformed into a pushcart for a vendor selling Italian ices. Familiar figures like "Martha Stewheart" and John "Ashcraft" are represented by funny, lifelike masks.

All of this makes the production appear so spontaneous it takes an effort to realize all the organization and industry that lie behind the very intelligent antics seen on stage.

Like this country, street theater is very much "by the people and for the people." As long as companies like Crystal Field’s Theater for the New City keep creating community-based theater that is vital to our civic wellbeing, it will most certainly remain alive and well.


Theater for the New City’s production of "Access Upheaval" will have three performances in Brooklyn: Aug. 11 at 2 pm, at Herbert von King Park (Marcy and Tompkins avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant); Aug. 16 at 8 pm, at Coney Island Amusement, Boardwalk at West 10th St.; and Aug. 24 at 2 pm, in Prospect Park’s Oriental Pavilion (enter the park at Ocean Avenue and Lincoln Road). All performances are free. For more information, call (212) 254-1109.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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