TNC’s Award-Winning Street Theater Tour Will Be ‘buckle My Shoe Or Terror Firma’

Mark Twain closeup.
In Buckle My Shoe, or Terror Firma, an operetta for the street presented by Theater for the New City August 4 to September 16, 2007, Mark Twain inspires dreams of a peaceful World where people sing from their own cultures. A polyglot symphony of songs unfolds, where longing for love and hope emerge. Piece is written and directed by Crystal Field with music composed by Joseph Vernon Banks. Clockwise from top: Left to right: Jon Weber, Primy Rivera, Mark Marcante (as Mark Twain).

Theater for the New City’s award-winning Street Theater Company opens its 31st annual tour August 4 with “Buckle My Shoe, or Terror Firma” a rip-roaring musical which will tour City streets, parks and playgrounds throughout the five boroughs through September 16. The production, free to all New Yorkers, has book, lyrics and direction by Crystal Field and musical score composed by Joseph Vernon Banks. (Schedule follows at bottom of this document.)

TNC’s award-winning Street Theater always confronts complex social issues, often through children’s allegories, with children as the heroes, making these free productions a popular form of family entertainment. The productions are elaborate, mounted with an assemblage of trap doors, giant puppets, smoke machines, masks, original choreography and a huge (9′ x 12′) running screen or “cranky” providing continuous movement behind the actors. The company of 30 actors, 10 crewmembers, 3 assistant directors, 2 stage managers and 5 live musicians shares the challenge of performing outside and holding a large, non-captive audience. The music usually varies in style from Broadway to Bossa Nova, blues, rap and Gilbert & Sullivan.

This year, with World Music, a rousing book and characters from Mark Twain, “Buckle My Shoe, or Terror Firma” looks at the possibility of world peace or world devastation and global warming versus global conservation. It urges, “One two, buckle my shoe, Three four out the door. The people of the United States buckle up and throw all the war mongers out the door.”

The hero of the play is a young writer without inspiration, who longs to write about peace and compassion. As he reads Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” beside the East River, he falls asleep and dreams of a peaceful world where people sing from their own cultures. A polyglot symphony of songs lifts him up to the heavens, where love and hope emerge.

He awakens to encounter a series of fugitives. Two bearded office workers are fleeing from both the CIA and their rapacious corporate employers, who are in cahoots with an oligarchy of arms manufacturers, empire-builders and forest-destroyers. “Write about us,” they plead. In a scene of vaudevillian hijinx, they are trampled by the corporate juggernaut, which breaks their bones. Since they have no health insurance, they cannot obtain care at the hospital.

Returning home, dispirited, via subway, the writer and the two broken men encounter a Mariachi band, which is also being followed by spies and Immigration officials? The train lurches to a stop; the musicians are arrested, handcuffed and taken to a token booth for interrogation. A token clerk, marooned outside the booth, begs the writer, “Write about us!” Inside the booth, the band is mugged; their instruments and jewelry are robbed. Fearing deportation, they seek refuge with the others at the Brooklyn Bridge.

Under the bridge, a raft appears on the water containing Huckleberry Finn and his Dog. The ravaged, savaged men pile aboard. Out of the writer’s book jumps Mark Twain, his hero, making it now a very large group for a small raft. Together they navigate the rapids, ending up in a flowing river that represents the people of our country: always moving, ebbing, flowing, ever changing, and yet together, making one Giant Being.

Following them are the politicians running for president, who jump onto the raft and rock the boat. Oil barons, carmakers, army generals and media moguls appear at every turn. The Earth screams in pain and horror. Huck’s Dog howls for the animals of the Earth. Mothers cry for their children. Yet in every place, words of peace and compassion are heard, thanks to Mark Twain’s River-the great powerful force of a People’s might. In the end, there is a standoff between the Life and Death of the planet. Life is victorious, yet Mark Twain declares the eternal caveat: “Eternal vigilance.”

Author/director Crystal Field began writing street theater in 1968 as a member of Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia. She wrote and performed her own outdoor theater pieces against the Vietnam War and also curated and performed many poetry programs for the Philadelphia Public Schools. There she found tremendous enthusiasm and comprehension on the part of poor and minority students for both modern and classical poetry when presented in a context of relevancy to current issues. She realized that for poetry to find its true audience, the bonds of authoritarian criticism must and can be transcended. Her earliest New York street productions were playlets written in Philadelphia and performed on the flatbed truck of Bread and Puppet Theater in Central Park. Peter Schumann, director of that troupe, was her first NY artistic supporter.

In 1971, Ms. Field became a protege of Robert Nichols, founder of the Judson Poets Theater in Manhattan. It is an interesting historic note that “The Expressway” by Robert Nichols, directed by Crystal Field (a Street theater satire about Robert Moses’ plan for a throughway to run across Little Italy from the West Side Highway to the FDR Drive), was actually the first production of Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. Nichols wrote street theater plays for TNC in its early years, but as time went on, wrote scenarios and only the first lines of songs, leaving Field to “fill in the blanks.” When Nichols announced his retirement to Vermont in 1975, he urged Field to “write your own.” The undertaking, while stressful at first, became the impetus for her to express her own topical political philosophy and to immerse her plays in that special brand of humor referred to often as “that brainy slapstick.” Her first complete work was “Mama Liberty’s Bicentennial Party” (1976), in honor of the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution.

Field has written and directed a completely new opera for the TNC Street Theater Company each successive year. She collaborated for eleven years with composer Mark Hardwick, whose “Pump Boys and Dinettes” and “Oil City Symphony” were inspired by his street theater work with Ms. Field. At the time of his death from AIDS in 1994, he was writing a clown musical with Field called “On the Road,” which was never finished. One long-running actor in TNC Street Theater was Tim Robbins, who was a member of the company for six years in the 1980s, from age twelve to 18.

The Village Halloween Parade, which TNC produced single-handedly for the Parade’s first two years, grew out of the procession, which preceded each Street Theater production. Ralph Lee, who created the Parade with Ms. Field, was chief designer for TNC’s Street Theater for four years before the Village Halloween Parade began.

Field has also written for TNC’s annual Halloween Ball and for an annual Yuletime pageant that was performed outdoors for 2,000 children on the Saturday before Christmas. She has written two full-length indoor plays, “Upstate” and “One Director against His Cast.” She is Executive Director of TNC.

Composer Joseph-Vernon Banks has written original music for the TNC street theater productions “Tap Dance,” “State Of The Union,” “The Patients Are Running The Asylum,” “Bio-Tech,” “Code Orange: on the M15” and “Social Insecurity,” all with book and lyrics by Crystal Field. His other TNC productions include music and lyrics for “Life’s Too Short to Cry” by Michael Vazquez. His awards include a Meet the Composer Grant, the ASCAP Special Awards Program, and a fellowship from the Tisch Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at NYU. His musical “Girlfriends!” premiered at The Goodspeed Opera House. He is a composeri’½in-residence in The Tribeca Performing Arts Center Work and Show Series and a member of The Dramatists Guild.

Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.