Sunday, February 13, 2005

Finally, Bob Gets a Little Lovin'

Bob

February 13, 2005
Robert Moses, Superhero?
By PHILIP NOBEL (NYT)

THE most famous image of Robert Moses depicts the chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority - just one of his many titles - standing on a red I-beam suspended over the East River, arms on his hips, a roll of drawings in his hand: the master builder at work. Behind him, on the opposite shore, is the United Nations complex - just one of the hundreds of city-altering projects Mr. Moses captained between the 1920's and 1960's, decades in which, having consolidated political power through a genius for writing legislation, he shaped New York City.

What is the legacy of the man responsible for building many of the city's beloved parks and river crossings, but also acre after acre of controversial public housing? Was Mr. Moses, who envisioned Jones Beach and Lincoln Center as well as the ruinous Cross Bronx Expressway, a savior or a scourge?

Particularly since the publication in 1974 of Robert Caro's book "The Power Broker," an exhaustive, critical look at the master planner, Mr. Moses' life and work have come under intense scrutiny by academics and policy wonks. Now it is time for an absurdist theater troupe to take a whack.

"Boozy: The Life, Death and Subsequent Vilification of Le Corbusier and, More Importantly, Robert Moses" opens at the Ohio Theater in SoHo on Tuesday. The latest production of "Les Freres Corbusier" - a group best known for staging last year's Obie-winning "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant" - places Mr. Moses as the visionary hero in an epic struggle between heaven-sent inspiration and group-think mediocrity. Along the way, the show sketches the combustible, imagined romance between the antiestablishment urban theorist Jane Jacobs and the group's namesake, the architect Le Corbusier. It features a walk-on by a Daniel Libeskind impersonator (the man himself was approached but declined), and depicts Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini and Josef Goebbels - played by obliging rabbits in full costume - as they implore Mr. Moses to transform the world through sacred geometry.

With the stage at times invaded by a traffic jam of remote-control cars and a cabal of hooded Masons dancing to Philip Glass, it would be easy to see the production as fun and games. But Les Freres' intentions are more profound: to engage their audience, as the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site carries on and the debate over the West Side stadium intensifies, in a nuanced discussion of urban planning.

"You want to get a lot of information out there, but you can't lecture or people will just tune out," said Aaron Lemon-Strauss, the show's producer. "In the end, this is theater - we'd teach a class at Hunter College if we didn't want to entertain."

Liberties have certainly been taken (it seems unlikely that Goebbels and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi ever French kissed), but the show - conceived by Juliet Chia (who also designed the lighting), David Evans Morris (the set designer), and Alex Timbers (the director) - aims to portray the historical essence of the unlikely cast through what Mr. Lemon-Strauss referred to as "negative argument."

In the Scientology pageant, Les Freres lionized the sect's founder, L. Ron Hubbard, in order to critique him. In "Boozy," we get Robert Moses, martyr and visionary, pitting his wits against the forces of design-by-committee for the greater glory of the city he loves. "If you read any of the Caro book, you see Moses as a racist, classist villain," said Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum, who, at 6 feet 4 inches tall, plays the famously Napoleonic planner. "Portraying him as a Christ-like superhero has been fun."
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