Friday, January 21, 2011

Don't tread on them

Life under the heel of Bruce Rattner and Frank Gehry in In the Footprint.
I really don't know how ArtsEmerson does it, but in their inaugural season (the second half of which kicked off Wednesday with In the Footprint: The Battle over Atlantic Yards, above) they continue to bat close to a thousand - their season has been more consistent in its high quality than that of any Boston theatre I can think of for the last thirty years. To be brutally honest, so far nothing on the Paramount stages has knocked the dramatic ball all the way out of the park (although some productions have come close) - but at the same time everything I've seen there has been worthwhile. And frankly, that's unprecedented in my experience.  When I ponder what Robert Orchard has wrought this year, I can only think back to the decades he spent working under Robert Brustein at the A.R.T. - can you imagine what that theatre might have been like if Orchard had been in charge?  Boston theatrical history would have been completely different (and oh, so much better).

Ah, well - that way madness lies, ya know?  So let's get back to In the Footprint, a kicky little show with music (no, I don't think it's quite "a musical") by New York's The Civilians about the attempts of various players to ram a new sports arena, with attendant malls and skyscrapers stuffed with high-end condos, down the collective throat of downtown Brooklyn.

You may shrug at the topic - what do the travails of Brooklyn have to do with Boston?  But rest assured, the Civilians limn through this particular prism a devastating vision of millennial politics and, you know, how things get done.  For what soon came clear about the Atlantic Yards project was that - as one disgruntled homeowner points out - no elected body or official had ever voted on it ever.  And yet it was presented to the public as essentially a done deal, with a posse of media stars (Frank Gehry, Jay-Z) lining up in support of Rattner's bulldozing much of Prospect Heights.  Indeed, as residents began to fight back against a veritable octopus of appointed agencies and authorities (each, of course, with its own acronym), they slowly realized that essentially, the city's bureaucracy had ceded Bruce Rattner the power to buy up much of their neighborhood on no authority other than his own.  (And what's more, a lawsuit pointing out this sad state of affairs even lost out in court after a battle that lasted years.)

This portrait of civic sleaze is depressing enough, but where In the Footprint breaks from the pack is in its merciless dissection of the liberal political cover Rattner deployed to get his way.  Dangling the usual goodie-basket of minimum-wage jobs and some token low-income housing, the Rattnerettes deftly deployed a strategy of divide-and-conquer that left local activists sputtering.  With Jay-Z, basketball, and new jobs on his side, it was easy for Rattner to depict residents unhappy with the scheme as merely racist gentrifiers - which he promptly did.  The resulting fireworks are sometimes ugly, but always pointedly funny - in fact, I can't think of a more accurate portrayal of the Way We Live Now that I've seen on any local stage in several years.  And somehow the Civilians manage to keep sympathy with the community's many opposing viewpoints even as they lightly satirize them - except, of course, when it comes to the repulsive Rattner (who's portrayed by a Tonka truck) or the vapid Gehry (played by his latest titanium doodle).

The six-member cast proves versatile and appealing, and Steve Cosson's script (as you might guess from the visual gambits above) skips lightly between satirical revue and editorial cartoon.  Alas, the one gap in the show is its music, which plays like watered-down William Finn (with the requisite over-articulate lyrics); but even the score rights itself at the last minute, in a moving paean to the type of neighborhood that can never survive the steamroller of a sports arena.  But at least, thanks to groups like The Civilians, the deaths of such places will be remembered.

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