Just ran away. I had to run away./My parents can hear, but I can’t,/and they blame me for that…(signed by a deaf actor )
Author Elizabeth Swados was in her mid twenties when, following on the heels of Hair and A Chorus Line, Runaways moved from The Public Theater to Broadway. Hair is affectionately (?) ridiculed in the piece as symptomatic of self indulgent baby boomers. Like A Chorus Line, Runaways was midwifed out of extensive confessional interviews – in this case, with homeless kids. It was an era of wildly innovative, experimental theater.
Eeny Meeny Gipsaleeny/Ooh Aah Combaleeny/Ooh, Mamacha cucaracha/COD… From up aisles and out of the wings, 25 young actors between the ages of 12 and 19 commandeer the stage as if they were squatters gathering, not unsuspiciously, for group warmth. Some performers carry books, those who do remain fluent. Most, wisely, look their ages. All but two sing up a storm and everyone moves well. Choreography by Ani Taj is vigorous and cool.
This is very serious/It looks like this child has been severely beaten/We’ll have to perform an appendectomy…is sung to a troll doll with neon pink hair. We meet abused children, junkies, prostitutes, and grifters. Everyone has a personal story, yet characters are unidentified and without through line. Nor is there resolution or a happy ending. Instead of distancing the audience, this rivets us to collective emotion.
Salsa, reggae, pop-rock tunes, chanting, and accompanied monologues fill the theater without hurting one’s ears. This is some of the best Sound Design ever – resonant, yet pristine and beautifully balanced (Leon Rothenberg). Chris Fenwick’s Music Direction is top notch. Arrangements are multi-layered and appealing. There is, however, and this is my single objection – untranslated Spanish.
I am the undiscovered son of Judy Garland/And I can dance and sing and wear fancy clothes./And whereas my sister Liza has to really work for applause/All you have to do is look at me/And you weep with standing ovations… comes from a powerful number about search for identity. No one treats me like Mico do./He buys me halter tops and Corkies/And he got me a water bed up on our flat/On Avenue C between Fifth and Sixth… is the song of a 13 year-old streetwalker.
There are unheard messages for parents and authorities, tips on scoring necessities …enterprise, you got to enterprise…warnings, dreams, prayers, and descriptions of enraged violence. The limbo of adolescence is difficult enough without what these kids face at home and now must cope with on the street, yet, this is not a depressing show and I’m damned if I know why. The kids are fierce even when pleading to be allowed to experience childhood. Are we under the illusion they’ll get through?
Donayale Werle’s terrific Set is raw stage filled with theatrical equipment, the excellent band, a bunch of worse-for-wear couches, and an upturned mattress. It shouts irreverence. Microphones are on stands and handheld as if we were watching the show in 1978. Mark Barton’s fine Lighting Design emerges crisply up front and variegated shadow in the back. Costumes (Clint Ramos) are a riot of color (as is hair) mixing then and now with aesthetic appeal and mash-up sensibility.
Elizabeth Swados, who died this year, pushed envelopes of all kinds. Her body of work is as impressive as it is illuminating. In an effort to be as specific as possible, she reached the universal. Next to nothing about this piece feels dated.
Director Sam Pinkleton manages a stage swarming with actors who sit, stand, lie, dance, sing, fight and sign in small groups well as company numbers without, miraculously, ever getting messy. Relationships are pointedly fleeting. Use of street garbage=cardboard, as a graffiti wall and projection screen is organic and imaginative. Aisles and balconies are effectively employed. The wonderful cast is almost all without stage-kid consciousness. Dramatization is dynamic and credible. We’ll undoubtedly see many of these young people again and again in years to come.
Every now and then a choice gets made,/And some debt in your heart won’t be paid./Who gets left behind no one knows./Don’t always condemn/ The one who goes…
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: The Company
New York City Center Encores! Off-Center presents
Book, Lyrics, and Music by Elizabeth Swados
Directed by Sam Pinkelton
131 West 55th Street
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