… all aboard …

Setting things off from the rest often makes them beautiful or exceptionally interesting, sometimes unexpectedly.  In getting you onto a tour bus, excursion-like, for a ride through NYC’s South Bronx, The Foundry Theatre is trying to bring that heightened awareness to the South Bronx.

Here’s how it works:  you meet the tour at a historic church on 121st Street and Lexington Avenue, pick up your ear phones and take a seat on the bus waiting at the curb.  It’s a real tour bus, with mounted video monitors and the addition of bunches of basil (herb of memory) tucked between the luggage racks.  A tour leader, in just that tone of voice alternates facts about sites that come up — “On the left we have … ” — with poetic evocations of the area, past and present.  Meanwhile the video monitors move between motion and stills, from almost what’s outside the window to abstract.  Eyes shift between windows and monitor, while recorded male and female voices break in on the live tour leader with meditation and reminiscence about the South Bronx.

The voices meld to an anonymous “I” who comes from there and shares memories, information and point of view.  The compounding of input is fascinating.  We learn new things as on a “regular” tour like the colorful and unexpected histories of impressive looking buildings.  We drive past the world’s largest wholesale food center, the Hunts Point Market, and the vast sewage treatment plant nearby.

For the first moments on board, the originality and anticipated discovery are thrilling.  The creative theatrical vision is undercut, unfortunately, by a flat script.  The reminiscences are generic, and peppered with toney references only vaguely linked to the material, though delivered in an elegiac voice — in a word, pretentious.

And the script is also over-pushy in telling us what to think.  Yes, the South Bronx has too often been made a dumping ground for what people don’t like “in their back yards” — a sewage plant, a correctional facility.  Still, did the commentary on every park we passed — and there were a lot of them — have to focus on the people displaced to build it as if the ones enjoying them right now in front of our eyes didn’t matter.  The upgrading of a particularly funky park that had served the neighborhood well was bemoaned — it sounds like it had been pretty grubby, though — and it was nice to see children playing in the new one.

By taking its passengers to the South Bronx, The Provenance of Beauty heightens awareness of an important and overlooked part of New York City, though it doesn’t carry on board the deepened understanding and illumination that art can bring.  One knows, though, from the thrill of the first totally novel moments that with a better script, Provenance could have better fulfilled the theatrical vision.

Congratulations to The Foundry Theatre for this audacious experiment that points in new directions.  The Provenance of Beauty is a unique opportunity for those who love New York City and its inhabitants, and those who are curious and impassioned by all the places that theater can take you — literally and figuratively!

The Provenance of Beauty plays on weekends September through November.