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Visiting Times Square is one thing. While tourists delight in its chaos, gawking at the bright lights and characters like the Naked Cowboy, locals tend to avoid the place at all costs
Working in Times Square is another matter. For playwright William Burke, an accumulation of ushering jobs and a stint doing crowd control for The Grinch Who Stole Christmas led him to observe, "It's very intense to stand still in Times Square with everything moving about you. You see the remnants of things left behind and a huge wet blanket of commercialism that's being dropped on everyone."
However, Burke wasn't inspired to start writing about the area until he came across an article in the New York Post about a man in a Cookie Monster costume who stabbed another Cookie Monster in a turf war.
The feud was part of the growing (and slightly odious) Times Square subculture of street peddlers who dress like famous children's characters. Roaming the pavement in kid-friendly costumes, they wave furiously at tourists, trying to get tips. It's an unregulated industry, which can create unsettling consequences.
Burke explores this world in Furry, a play about a man in an Elmo suit. (It runs at JACK, the Brooklyn performance space, from April 18-27.)
As he wrote, Burke asked himself how you could most effectively protect your turf if you're in a Sesame Street costume. Why would you do that? What would you be fighting for, and whom would you be fighting?
Such serious dramaturgical questions led him to conclude that his Elmo should be a student of military strategy. "I started by reading a couple translations of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, based on Lao Tzu's Tao te Jing," he says. Meanwhile, he realized his Elmo character should also be fighting for the future of his ailing son.
In addition to the The Art of War, Burke also repurposed text from the popular children's book Goodnight Moon and The Contender, a reality show about a boxing competition. "You would cry, it's so manipulative," he says.
The eclectic mix of mashed-up text has an oddly authentic ring. Speaking in classic Elmo-ese, our hero declares, "Elmo always been walking through the crowd. Elmo can't seem to see the path, but it'll come. And when it does, Elmo should let them know that they should have been watching."
Later, as Elmo plans to expand his turf from 42nd to 45th street, he declares, "No way Elmo lose the way. No way Elmo lose the war."
As the Elmo in Furry gathers an army of Cookie Monsters to help him achieve manifest destiny, the audience dons Elmo masks of their own. But ultimately the Cookie Monster army, played by Samuel T. West and Regina Rocke, revolts. "Marty Brown, the actor who plays Elmo, describes the plot as a Scarface rise and fall," Burke offers.
He adds, "Times Square is a trap for American sentimentalism. It's manipulating you in every which way, and I wanted that feeling in this play. The Elmo in Furry has so much pride for his family---which can be a good or a damaging thing. The characters in Times Square are playing on parents who want their kid to have a great experience, so they pose for a photo and pay for it. But do they stop to wonder about who's under the suit?"
Eliza Bent is a journalist, playwright, and performer living in Brooklyn
Photo by Sue Kessler