BWW Reviews: Mark Dendy Complicates Astor Place History

BWW Reviews: Mark Dendy Complicates Astor Place History

Books are the structure around which Mark Dendy's NEWYORKnewyork @ Astor Place is built. The cramped Joe's Pub stage is set with an abstracted skyline of books, soon to be destroyed by Mei Yamanaka as she embodies the forces of gentrification that Dendy not-so-subtly suggests are destroying our twice-named city. The piece itself is painstakingly researched, pulling together historical moments from 1848 to the present to tell the story of the Astor Place Library (where the Public Theater now sits), a story intertwined with the artists and activists it housed, displaced, informed, and inflamed.

Dendy supervises the story in the role of William Backhouse Astor II, a millionaire who he plays as possessing the greed of Scrooge and the ambition of Macbeth. Mr. Astor sits in a throne-like chair for the majority of the piece, commenting on his own role in bringing the Library to life - an act he sees as bringing culture to a "dirty" area - and acting as an observer in spaces where he does not belong (for instance, a gay club in the 90's). His ability to be an observer, to remain unaffected by the happenings onstage, seems to acknowledge Mr. Astor's power as the white, wealthy gentrifier and Mr. Dendy's power as the artist and storyteller (who is possibly also to blame for gentrification - back to this later).

Astor Library feels most alive, most connected to the history of its city, when historical moments criss-cross and echo one another across many years. Leslie Cuyjet questions her choice to throw out her book collection and solely use her Kindle moments after we learn that Astor Library was only open from 9-5 on weekdays, inaccessible to the working class. Anxieties about the availability of knowledge and stories span time. Dendy pays tribute to the space's long history as a performance venue by shuttling in moments from Macbeth - the witches, however, double as real estate agents attempting to sell overpriced, "garbage" Brooklyn apartments to modern gay couples. In the most resonant of these moments, the cast recalls a time early in the Library's history when officials open-fired at a crowd of protesters, killing many. Moments later, gun shots and photos of unarmed black men murdered by police flash as Danté Brown writhes in pain.

Dendy's commentary on the many histories of Astor Place is constantly explicitly or implicitly tied to the problem of gentrification, and in particularly the possible culpability of artists in this process. Dendy's cast literally constructs the model of the library (made of books, of course) onstage. Does gentrification start when artists bring "trendiness" to an area? That's what the pink elephant in the room suggests. No, seriously - Dendy represents the awkward culpability artists may have in gentrification with a pink elephant costume. Delving further into the absurd, Taylor Swift, the new New York City Tourism Ambassador, makes an appearance with her song "Welcome to New York." "NYC is a place of endless potential and possibility," she says in a radio interview overlaid with the song. For who, Taylor? Her presence suggests that there is more than one type of "artist" in this city, and the differences are probably important.

NEWYORKnewyork @ Astor Place is far too long. It says in ten minutes what it could say in two. It under-uses Stephen Donovan, one of Dendy's greatest assets. It is heavy handed, and not nearly as cleanly woven together as Labyrinth, Dendy's piece at Abron Arts Center last fall. None of this mattered much to me. Dendy hits the nail on the head so succinctly in so many moments: "I'm the homeless problem...you're scared shitless of me because in an alternate universe, I'm you...I'm the collateral damage of capitalism," his homeless character says. He reminds us of the reasons we should be proud of our city and simultaneously compels us to constantly question our role in the injustices around us. He makes movement matter to the story he is telling - Christopher Bell experiences and explains his AIDS-ridden body through words and dance, integrated into a perfect and heartbreaking monologue.

He leaves us with Macbeth's words: "it is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing" and a sequence in which the dancers stare at their phone screens as they repeat a phrase from earlier in the piece. Is it just modern forms of communication, then, that are meaningless, that "signify nothing"? Dendy reaffirms that the genre he has molded for himself can in fact signify many things. Though meaning is scattered and existing in fragments in NEWYORKnewyork @ Astor Place, it asserts itself quite powerfully.

Photo Credit: Yi-Chun Wu

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From This Author Lauren Wingenroth

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