Jason Grote is a playwright who does not suffer from a lack of opinions - or shyness in expressing them. In his new play, Pipe Bomb Sonata, he eloquently, grittily and passionately explores the social, political, and personal circumstances surrounding the events that culminated in the Tompkins Square Police Riot in the late 1980s.
Using a trenchant mix of poetry, dance, naturalism, and topical satire to stunning effect, Pipe Bomb Sonata begins in the gentrified East Village of 1999, as Susan, a longtime resident and anarchist-cum-poet, reminisces about her life as a white teenager living on one of America's most dangerous blocks. As she reads, her poems come to life, and the squatters, politicians, cops, artists, and immigrants populating the Lower East Side of Susan's memories tell a story as broad and sprawling as the neighborhood that spawned it.
Without getting on a soapbox or descending into stereotypical stock situations or characters, Grote has taken a very complex and ambiguous subject and turned it into a no less complex, but lean, muscular and totally exhilarating theatre piece. While there is never any doubt to his point of view, he clearly and fairly covers all sides of the thorny issue of gentrification, and the fate of the people displaced by this continuing phenomenon, with a compassionate, keenly observed honesty.
Under Grote's taut direction, the performances were all nearly flawless. Leading the large ensemble, Trent Oliver evinced a soulful, brooding edge as the wistfully reminiscent Susan, as did Julia Panely as a suburban teenage refugee known as Squirrel Girl. Mitchell Barnett, as the resident political activist, Kropotkin, was a fireball of uncontrollable militant energy; Todd A. Kovner as his sidekick, Wingnut, was touching in his bewildered idealism, and Tessa Martin frightened with her accurate, chilling take on a self-serving local politician, the closeted Lucia Mandarino. Bruce Barton, Michael Krass, Christopher Matthews, Deepa Purohit, Jeff Scherer, and Emmanuella Souffrant rounded out the ensemble, each contributing vital, sharp-edged characterizations to the many parts they played.
There was no set to speak of, the costumes (uncredited) were appropriate to the material, and Rob Volk's lighting was functional. While the minimal production values in no way detracted from the overall power of the work, the continuous, flowing movement (choreography by Jennifer C. Harmer) could have benefitted from a continuous musical underscoring; if there is any justice, a more fully realized production is on its way.
Committed to the development of original plays, Toolbox Productions hopes to achieve what Clifford Odets and the Group Theatre did in the 1930s: the use of innovative theatrical styles to confront the issues of the day. If this brutal, moving, and truly impressive production was any indication, it is a goal they will easily achieve.
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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita