The show: "Freewheelers" by the Broken Umbrella Theatre at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven.
What makes it special?: It's an original homegrown show that takes two distinct pieces of New Haven history — the bicycle, which received its patent here in 1866, and the country's first corset factory that opened in the city that same year — and makes a compelling music-dance-theater work.
The one-hour piece is presented in a long-closed department store where the audience enters through an ancient elevator (the second oldest in the city), travels through a long basement corridor where they pass exhibits on corset making and eartly bicycles and emerges into a large old industrial space that looks like it might be inhabited by ghosts. It is.
First impressions?: To be honest, local theater is often overly earnest, thematically unsubtle or not always performed with polish. But Broken Umbrella Theatre shows in this work that its artistry is as great as any major theater in Connecticut. It's got the goods as well as the girdles.
What's it about?: There are two parallel story lines set in the 1880s that merge marvelously: One is about Elizabeth (Robin Levine), the docile and ailing wife of Isaac, the town's corset factory owner (Ian Alderman). Anne is not well because she is unknowingly damaging her body by the continual wearing of restrictive garments that she — and other women of the time — are pressured to wear because of the conventions of propriety — and the ideal feminine silhouette demanded by men. (It takes three servants just to help bind her.)
The other story centers on Anne (Lisa Daly), a young, independent, immigrant woman who works under demanding and dangerous conditions in the factory. She discovers the joy and liberation (not to mention the practicality of speedy transportation) of this new invention: the bicycle.
How do they connect?: Anne is fired by Isaac when she decides to wear her brother's trousers when riding the bicycle to work (because her skirts keep getting tangled in the gears). Anne, who is supporting her family with the job, implores Elizabeth to speak on her behalf to get her job back.
But it's the friendship they form, at first awkwardly, that is at the heart of the show. "What do you do," asks Anne to Elizabeth. "I rest," she responds. "It's exhausting."
Anne attempts to free her from rest and helps the submissive woman to the joys of being unrestrained.
Is that a euphemism?: Not at all. Thematically, it's about breaking the powerful social pressures on woman in the 19th century which not only restricted their movements, but their health. These societal pressure about the lives of women, of course, were made by powerful men. Rings a bell now too, doesn't it?
Is there a lot of riding in stage?: Sort of but it's all done theatrically with graceful movement and inventive staging that connects emotionally. When Elizabeth puts her foot to the peddle, there's a palpable sense of freedom, not only the road but of the self. You can also sense a new century of change just on the horizon.
There's also a promising subplot about a young black girl named Amelia, wonderfully played by Remsen Welsh, who works at the factory and who looks up at Anne's new-century woman, and faces her own challenges and dangers.
Is it a play?: It's a play, yes, but it also has dance movement, exquisitely performed by Levine. The overall staging by Rachel Alderman, who also wrote the script, is fresh, fluid and emotionally potent. Production values are spare but still top-rate and highly effective.
The show also has some lovely and lively music, mostly underscoring that helps drive the action and reveal character, but there also are some appealing tunes performed by four vocalists backed with a three piece combo. The music by Chrissy Gardner is both lilting and dramatically effective but the lyrics are non-specific and are lost in a muddle of pop-style, not theatrical, singing.
Who will like it?: Women, especially mothers and daughters. Bicyclists. Bra-burners. And those who like new theatrical experiences.
Who won't?: Males in power who think they know what's best for women. The people at Spanx.
For the kids?: Older ones might appreciate the story, staging, environmental aspect. Definitely a must for young girls. A learning opportunity as well as being a terrific piece of theater.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Broken Umbrella rides high with musical that celebrates a different kind of women's lib.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: At the end of "Freewheelers", I thought it was the intermission and when I learned the play concluded I felt I wanted more. This show has the potential to be a great full-length music-theater-dance piece if its creators expand the story, characters, humor and musical potential. As of now, it's one of the best half-shows of the year.
The basics: The show runs through the end of the festival, June 29. The show takes place at the former Horowitz department store at 760 Chapel St., New Haven. The running time is one hour. Tickets are $35/pay what you wish. Performances are Wednesday, June 19 at 8 p.m; Saturday, June 22 at 3 and 8 p.m; Sunday, June 23 at 3 and 7p.m.; Wednesday, June 26 at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, June 29 at 3 and 8 p.m. General admission. Information at 203-203-562-5666 or 888-736-2663 and www.artidea@org.
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