Bail Out: The Musical

Off-Off Broadway, Play With Music

Location: UNDER St. Marks

Randi Berry and Billy Pelt in Bailout: The Musical. Photo by Elizabeth White.

BOTTOM LINE: A performance piece about a performance piece that is not a performance piece. Great tongue in cheek humor.

Downtown independent theater is alive and well and you can find it in the form of Bail Out: The Musical. Presented by Horse Trade Theater Group, the Wreckio Ensemble takes a tongue in cheek look at arts funding and how it affects indie theater. The plot revolves around a bunch of celebrated downtown indie darling artists who are struggling to get by in this economy.  When the government finally decides to "bail out" the performing arts, they apply for funding but may have to compromise their artistic integrity in order to get a living wage and health insurance. It's a battle of commercialism versus avant garde art and the production does a great job of finding the balance between the two.

The play starts as soon as you walk into the theater. With pre-show music from the depression era, the point seems to be that indie art is in its own depression. Enter Sept Ember: a blond and bubbly Wisconsin girl who is fresh of the bus and ready to make her New York dreams come true in the world of off-off Broadway. A modern day Peggy Sawyer, she wants to be a tap dancing expressionist fire spinner. She quickly learns that off-off-Broadway is dead and performance art is a thing of the past because "nobody wants to see 9-hour productions of the Orestia performed by transgendered clowns anymore." It's so bad that even "Karen Finley is doing a non-union tour of Mamma Mia." When the group gets their government funding they discover that their show now has guidelines: it must be a musical, it must be happy and it must express American family values. All of these things are in direct opposition to what the artists usually produce, but in order to get a piece of the bailout pie, they do what they have to do.

Sept Ember is played by Randi Berry and for me, she is the glue that keeps the show so fun. Her gleeful exuberance is infectious as her character deals with the shame of her musical theater background and making it work for their new performance piece. Her line delivery is unique and funny and her facial reactions are nonstop entertaining. The rest of the group is decidedly darker than Sept Ember. Cecilia and Archie (Dechelle Damien and Benjamin Spradley) are two established off-off-Broadway performers who are ready to cash in, in order to get some health insurance. Damien is funny and strong with a great physicality. She constantly squats down to speak as if what she is saying is so important that it is coming from a deep well inside her. Spradley plays a confused neurotic actor who is walking the fine line of sanity. He has some very moving moments when he seems to realize the severity of his mentality and it's sad to watch. Rounding out the cast is Anna Lamadrid who plays a burlesque dancer, Lauren Turner Kiel who plays the director/writer of the new show and Billy Pelt who plays a piano playing mime. Lamadrid is great at showing how difficult it is for her character to shift her ideals in order to satisfy the governmental guidelines for their performance. Her character seems to be the one that most represents so many actors in New York City who struggle with the choice of making art or making a living. When she announces why she is willing to compromise her art (complete with special spotlight), her speech is genuine and heartfelt. Pelt is a mime...basically because performance art needs a a mime, right? He does what mimes do which is simply react to what is going around him. He also accompanies the singers when it comes time for them to perform their musical. He is very funny and always interesting to watch, especially in a discussion of political art where he can only react to the one-sided conversation by drinking pantomimed tea.

By the time the show has come to an end, they have produced their American family-values musical. The audience gets to see how it evolved from performance art to something they believed the public wanted to see. The finale song "Apple Pie America" is a brash in-your-face depiction of tableaus that are as American as America gets with snippets of Richard Nixon, baseball, football, Boy Scouts, guns and even Dreamgirls all wrapped in a banner of red, white and blue. This is what they think the government (or is it middle America?) wants and I guess they're right. With smiles plastered on their faces you can see they resent forsaking their true art just for the sake of money.  

Director Kimberlea Kressal obviously had a lot of fun putting this show together. Written by the Wreckio Ensemble, it's campy when it needs to be and serious at the right times. Kressal makes great use of the small space and I particularly liked the scene that took place in a dressing room in the actual dressing room. It was a smart way to have a different location without having to change the set and it made that scene the most real. When the audience learns which of the characters can go through with the show even though there heart isn't in it, having it in the real dressing room gave it a sense of verisimilitude that helped the show a lot. It was also fun to watch the actors literally get into the audience so that we had no choice but to be involved.

UNDER St. Marks is the perfect place to do a show about performance artists.  With the heat clanging in the pipes overhead and the action happening mere inches away from you because the space is so small, it's a love letter to what downtown theatre is all about: a group of people putting together a show the way they want to do it. That isn't just what the play is about, it also seems that it is what Wreckio Ensemble is about. There is a lot to enjoy about this show. The actors are talented and the play really sends a message about the state of theater today. I love that they are able to poke fun at performance art at the same time they are praising it. And any show that is called Bail Out: The Musical but isn't really a musical (well, until the end) has got my vote for best irony in an off-off-Broadway theater.

(Bail Out: The Musical plays at UNDER St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place between 1st Ave and Ave A. Performances run through December 20, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. There is no intermission. Tickets are $20. For tickets call Smartix at 212-868-4444 or online at