New York City is the unquestioned capital of theater in the United States. Most people, when they think of theater in New York, think of those few legendary blocks in Midtown Manhattan known as the theater district. By the way, “Broadway” theaters are not necessarily on the street called Broadway. A Broadway theater is a professional theater that seats 500 or more (source).
But, theater in New York for me means the little, offbeat venues, not even small theaters but churches, basements, warehouses, where people with much more talent and enthusiasm than funding come together to create art rather than to make money.
So, when a friend suggested we have an evening of theater, we headed for an unlikely address for a show that I had read about in the vitally important Village Voice (here), the guide to all things cultural in New York City, not just in Greenwich Village.
It was just the sort of show I liked, a re-invention of an obscure nineteenth century European play, telling the story of how and why the devil created what in the quaint old days of the nineteenth century and the almost just as quaint old days of the 1970s were called “venereal diseases,” the diseases of Venus, lady of love. Nowadays, of course, we prosaically call them STDs (sexually transmitted diseases).
The Voice reported that there was some audience participation in the performance, and that has always appealed to me. I like the idea of audience participation, and I have used it in my productions, but I do not like being part of the audience participating.
So, after we bought our tickets, took our programs and pillows, and walked into the performance space, I tried to scope out a place where we would be out of the main line of fire. After all, this play was about the devil and venereal disease; what kind of audience participation would be involved?
The space was a fairly large, empty cube, perhaps three storeys high, with platforms built onto the walls at various levels, with ladders going up to them; perhaps it had been a warehouse. I suggested we take the highest such platform, perhaps two storeys up, maybe eight feet long and four feet wide, where we could see what was going on without likely getting involved in it.
We scurried up the ladder and made ourselves comfortable with the pillows. Other platforms were peopled, and most of the audience settled in on the floor; there were no chairs, just pillows. The lights dimmed.
I call this my unforgettable New York theater experience, but I do not remember a thing that happened before the devil climbed up to our platform, where he delivered a major, certainly a long, speech. That would not have been too much of a problem. We moved back against the wall to give him room.
He was a burly young man wearing nothing but a pair of leather pants. Then, my friend pointed, rather inelegantly, I thought, to his crotch. The leather pants were equipped with a pocket or codpiece at the crotch in which there was a live snake.
Do you suppose it was symbolic?
At the moment, symbolism was the last thing on our minds. As Old Scratch strutted and declaimed, he emphasized points with exaggerated pelvic thrusts, and with each of his snake-shaking moves, my friend and I pressed further and further against the wall, until each of us was not much more than a bas-relief.
The devil and his little friend descended, and my friend and I oozed out of the wall. The play ended. During the applause (there was no curtain, so there was no curtain call), the devil lifted the resident of his crotch up for applause. What, no apples?
I do not remember why or how the devil created venereal diseases. If you recognize the story of the play and can tell me the title and author, I would certainly appreciate the information. I do not remember much about my unforgettable New York City theater experience, but the little I do remember is still unforgettable.
You can find an index to all my unforgettable New York City stories, “My Experience of Unforgettable New York City,” here.