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    Tunnel visions

    "Redbird," set aboard an obsolescent New York subway train, offers more inspired, often funny tales of the unexpected from Clay McLeod Chapman in collaboration with the Studio 42 company.


    It may not have this effect on you, but the New York subway makes Clay McLeod Chapman think of sex. And saints. And death.

    Company: Studio 42.
    Written by: Clay McLeod Chapman.
    Directed by: Isaac Butler.
    Cast: Hannah Bos, Abe Goldfarb, Bradford Louryk, Alexa Scott-Flaherty, Paul Thureen, Phoebe Ventouras.
    Set design by: Andrew Thompson.
    Costumes by: Greg Climer.

    Related links: Official site | Clay McLeod Chapman
    Culture Project / 45 Bleecker
    45 Bleecker St. at Lafayette
    March 20 - April 5, 2003

    The author of the various Pumpkin Pie Shows (see here and here), cleverly crafted vignettes of the macabre, Chapman sets his latest collection aboard the Redbirds, the recently retired, red-painted workhorses of the New York City subways. If you ever rode the 1, 2, 3, 7 or 9 lines anything over a year ago, you were on one.

    Unlike many of his earlier works, which can easily take 20 minutes to patiently and elegantly unfurl, quite a few of the "Redbird" pieces are quick hits — light and funny though less ambitious than usual. Still, there were plenty of laughs is "Theme Park" about the little girl who thinks she's on an amusement ride and looks for Mickey and Minnie among the local rodents; "The First Car" about a woman who gets rudely groped without realizing she's gotten on the most erotic car in the whole MTA; and "Subway Succubus" about a sinister black-robed cult that seizes a virginal maiden, waits for a train to come screeching down the track, and then heaves the sacrificial victim right into it.

    One vignette that was clearly not developed to its full potential but still struck a chord for me was "Conversation," about a man who tries to chat up an attractive woman who buries her head in a magazine, pretending not to notice him. Why, the play seems to ask, can you talk to strangers on a barstool or a park bench or the bus but never on the subway? I'd like to know that myself. Maybe it's the added sense of confinement that you get underground — people feel a little more at risk. Whatever the reason, their already-amusing one-sided conversation is nudged right over the top by a hilarious and surreal twist involving broccoli.

    Another very funny episode is "Ahab's Red Rail" in which a crusty ship captain (Abe Goldfarb) recounts his tangles with the elusive and dangerous train.

    A few pieces stand out as fully developed and emotionally satisfying. Among them, "Downsizing" is an example of what Chapman does best — uses a character's words to slowly paint the entire picture around him until you can almost see it in the blackness. A man (Paul Thureen) sits in a chair, his head cocked unnaturally to the side, a telephone headset to his ear, talking with his family. The man is not in the subway as such, at least not intentionally, but as the scene fills itself in we begin to understand what he's doing underground, in his chair, at his desk, on his phone. We begin to visualize the collapsed debris around him, and his talk with his wife and son acquire a special poignancy.

    Similar in mood is the ethereal piece called "Redbird" which closes the show. A primly dressed old-timer (Phoebe Ventouras) sits alone under a blue glow in the decommisioned train car, doing needlepoint and reminiscing. Apparently she neglected to get off the train on its last day, wound up riding along on the Redbird's final journey, and never left. With a hint of the supernatural, the monologue paints a melancholy picture of an era that's passing, and it's not just a matter of train cars. The metal walls echo with the memories of the great wars and a vanishing way of life and lost traditions.

    The Studio 42 company, not Chapman's usual troupe, helped collectively develop the plays in "Redbird," and the results are engaging. All six actors (Hannah Bos, Bradford Louryk and Alexa Scott-Flaherty, in addition to those above) turn in fine performances, and most of these short pieces deserve their place in the ever-growing Chapman oeuvre.

    MARCH 28, 2003

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