BWW Interview: Robert Cuccioli's Ordeal as BIKEMAN
Robert Cuccioli knew performing in BIKEMAN, A 9/11 Play, was going to be a wrenching experience.
The new drama, based on the book of the same name by Thomas F. Flynn, revisits the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, through the author's eyes. Flynn, an award-winning writer and producer for the "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather," was outside his Greenwich Village home when the first plane flew directly overhead. He instantly called the news desk and told them he was headed downtown. Jumping on his bike, he began his journey.
Cuccioli, the Broadway veteran of JEKYLL & HYDE and SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, was out of town that day. "To be honest, I'm a New Yorker and regrettably I was not here when it happened," he explained. "I say 'regrettably' because this is my home and I wanted to be here. It was painful for me not to have been here," said Cuccioli, who portrays Flynn, the Bikeman.
"In the play, one of the biggest challenges for Tom is that he was a reporter, whose very being is to stand apart from events and report on them objectively. Instead, he became part of the event, he got sucked into it and it became a real problem for him in a way," he said. Flynn had to come to grips with his dual roles that day-as a journalist and a participating witness. "How do you, a journalist, separate the event from what you're experiencing? That was a big challenge for Tom."
Flynn, who produces for "Dan Rather Reports" and splits his time between New York and Cape Cod, has been very hands on during the production process, Cuccioli said. "He's been to almost every rehearsal, and we're honored and blessed to have him as a mentor and a guide."
The five-character play, performed at a theater a mere three blocks north of ground zero, is an untraditional drama, written as an epic poem to illustrate the surreal and terrifying events of that morning.
"Unlike Shakespeare's plays, which have a certain cadence and rhythm to guide you, this poetry is more freestyle with an unusual rhythm," Cuccioli said. "Tom never repeats himself in this work, which is like a cross between The Odyssey and Dante's Inferno."
Neighborhood Woman (Elizabeth Ramos), Ambulance Man (Richard Topol), Photographer/Policeman (Irungu Mutu) and Business Woman (Angela Pierce) round out the cast. The commanding set, designed by James Noone, could be considered another character, as it is dramatically spun and turned by the cast during the play, directed by Michael Bush. "It's a very impressionistic set," Cuccioli said. "We have large units that symbolize the towers and they rotate so projections could be put on them. Thankfully, I don't turn the towers, they're very heavy and on wheels, and when they are moved, it's almost like they're dancing."
Each of the actors experiences a range of emotions, Cuccioli said. "The emotions in the scenes change quickly from hope to despair to awe to fear. Then when events start changing, Flynn realizes that something powerful is happening and he wants to report on it, but he's living through it just like the others."
Flynn's bike became a safe haven for him, "almost like a security blanket," Cuccioli said. The bike was never out of Flynn's sight during the entire day; he rarely lost physical contact with it, inspiring the play's title. "He was convinced that bike helped save his life," Cuccioli said.
"As the day progresses, Flynn goes through so many emotions just as a witness," he said. "He saw the flames and watched people jumping, saw others running for their lives. He realizes he's swept up in the humanity and drama that is unfolding. He remembers what it felt like to live in this collective nightmare.
"It was a journey out of hell and a quest to find one's way home again. To think that this really happened is unbelievable," he said. "His heart is so affected by what is going on in front of him, of people dying before him."
One particularly gut-wrenching moment vividly portrayed is when Flynn encounters Neighborhood Woman as she frantically tries to reach her child's school. "There was a nearby school and this woman needed to get to her child and her anguish and pain totally snapped him. The woman screams without making a sound. It's more powerful not to hear her actually scream," Cuccioli said. The vignettes all come from Flynn's direct experience. At one point a parking garage collapses, threatening to trap Flynn and the others.
"The characters become like a Greek chorus to some extent," Cuccioli said. "I don't get to interact with them too much, but they're all a part of me in the play. The Ambulance Man is a close figure who Tom had dealt with. The Photographer is someone Tom hired on the spot. He met him at the base of the tower," he said.
"Most people's experience of that day was from afar, on TV, and this is such a unique perspective on what happened on the ground. Tom's journey, that included being trapped in the garage, is just unbelievable. It was a lonely, frightening place to be, and the fact that the air was so heavy and grit-filled, it was a mess."
BIKEMAN unfolds in one hour, with no intermission. "It's very difficult to be out there for one hour straight at center stage," Cuccioli said. "My experience with the classics has given me the tools to handle the verse and be able to relate the story in a poetic way.
"My biggest hope is that people, especially New Yorkers who lived through this, will not be afraid to come and see it. We do this in a caring, respectful and safe way. We're within walking distance to the site, and I hope that people who go to the Memorial will find us as well."
Bikeman A 9/11 Play is at BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center, 199 Chambers St. The play runs 1 hour with no intermission.
Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg