In 1977, Arthur Preisser was living on a farm with only land as far as the eye could see and with nary a dream of an Empire State Building on the endless horizon. Randy Weiner was a classic white kid and son of a New York attorney and the closest he got to the New York City as Sodom and Gomorra was looking at it from the window of his Daddy’s car.
New York in 1977, two years after Ford told the city to drop dead, the Bronx was burning and we were in flames , rap was up, punk was down, and the city was in a state of perpetual decay. But it is this period that has ignited the imaginations of an acclaimed theater director and the owner of New York City’s hipper than hell Burlesque nightclubs “The Box”. “It was a very special time in New York history, very exciting. There is something about that time period; there was a danger in in the city and certain areas now taken over by banks and real estate, where you didn’t venture in.”
It is a perfect backdrop for Preisser and Weiner’s third artistic collaboration.
Arthur Preisser you might remember from his directing last years “The Power Of The Trinity”, a wonderful telling of Haile Selassie’s prescient speech at the UN with great music and song, but an iffy book. But Preisser is also the man who worked with Melvin Van Peeble’s on the theatric production of ” Sweet Sweetback a musical” (which will be performed in Van Peebles hometown of Chicago next year) and will be taking the Van Peebles Burnt Sugar collaboration “Wid Laxatives” to Paris. Along the way there was “Macbeth” with body surfing as well as “Caligula” and “Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe” –both done with Randy Weiner.
If Preisser is an artist who understands the business, as the Founder and Artistic Director of The Classic Theater of Harlem would suggest, Randy Weiner is the inverse: a businessman who understands art. Owning two nightclubs is a full time, extremely difficult job. There is nothing easier than losing money in a nightclub, the profit margins are razor thin and you make all your money from alcohol. But if “The Box” is difficult, “Sleep No More” could’ve been a disaster in lesser hands. Weiner produced “Speak no More”, one of the most original concepts I’ve ever heard of. But first and foremost, he had to get people not simply excited but comprehending the concept. Before it is even a play it is ABOUT GETTING IT. About understanding precisely what is being sold. Essentially, it is an onsite melodramatic retelling of Macbeth (him again) where the audience wears masks and follow the actors around the labyrinth McKittrick Hotel. There is no set stage to see the show, you go through doors, up to the floors in search of the story. I panned it here. “But you told people to go and see it, right? You had to share it and whether you liked it or not it was an experience that had to be shared.”
Here we hit upon one of the two basic theatrical ideas that connect Preisser and Weiner: experiences that have to be shared. The promise for “King Kong”, and while I think the duo talk a great game (I’d be happy to hear them talk about it on stage for two hours) I also think they have the show to back it up, it is gonna wow us. Pressier and Weiner wrote the book, Wes Matthews composed the score. Weiner: “This is in a great tradition of vaudeville and variety, taking music from whatever idiom from travel drumming to, yes hip hop, Tom Waits sounding to disco. More like a variety show. A story pastiche…”
Preisser: “It is about Hip Hop but it is also about Broadway, it is about putting on a show. I am not disagreeing that it is an allegory for the birth of hip hop but it is a funny thing, it starts to be about people who want to be in the entertainment business .We want to really engage, bring it right to the audience”.
There are early plans to perform it indoors, where it can reach “its full effectiveness”. Weiner: “There is a side of me that is a commercial business man and I know there is a quality about “King Kong” that captures people’s imaginations.”
There is also something controversial about the story, in which three Jewish men go in search of the next big thing and sing about how the Jews run the music business . Meanwhile the next big thing turns out to be a black man dressed as an ape. Alfred: “In my production of King Lear I had the African characters wear bones in their nose, I had people complaining not about the play but about the costumes. “ The duo expect some major blowback.
Their next work with be “Broadway Joe: The story Of Joe Namath”. “We are attracted to outsized characters, Caligula, King Kong, Joe Namath”. Indeed, there are several things going on here:
1. Avant Garde Theater for the masses, populist art forms for the many, the search for an audience to engage.
2. Site specific theater.
3. Outsized stories and egos. They should try the story of Bono next.
4. Music, music and more music.
From Macbeth to Haile Selasie, Kings abound, from King Kong to Caligula to Faust, monsters are around and from Al Bowly , Optical, Howling Wolf, Alicia Bridges and Tomas Doncker there is music in the cafes at night and revolution in the theatrics of Randy Weiner and Alfred Preisser.
Don’t miss “King Kong”.
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