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By KENNETH JONES
Michael Bush had a clear vision when he was preparing to direct and co-adapt Bikeman, Thomas F. Flynn's autobiographical narrative poem about being swallowed by the 9/11 tragedy at the World Trade Center.
He knew from the start that since the terror attack on the Twin Towers was, as poet-journalist Flynn puts it, "the most watched event in the history of the Earth," a stage evocation of the tragedy should avoid the literal. We've already seen endless television coverage of the smoke, the chaos, the rubble, so why compete with photorealism?
"It was my job to find a visual style and an acting style to match Tom's decision to write it as an epic narrative poem," Bush explains of the lean 76-page book, first published in 2008 and now adapted as Bikeman: A 9/11 Play, playing downtown at the BMCC Tribeca Arts Center.
A stage version was an opportunity to tell the first-person Ground Zero story in an "impressionistic" way that engages the imagination without presenting journalistic images.
Bush took a cue from the original text, which is spiked with references to muses, monsters, heroes, and the cruel natural world. Since Flynn's poem draws on a tradition of epic-verse storytelling that goes back to ancient times, the director "instantly saw it as Greek," a chance to hint at conventions of classical Greek theatre.
"Like Greek dramas, our main character speaks directly to the audience and to the universe, reporting the events and asking why," Bush explains. "[We] chose to use the cast at times not only as real characters that Tom encountered on that fateful morning, but also as a Greek chorus, speaking in unison and helping to tell the story."
The 50-minute play, co-adapted by Bush and Flynn, is told mostly from Flynn's point of view when, as a CBS writer and producer on Sept. 11, 2001, he jumped on his bicycle to race downtown to cover the inferno in lower Manhattan. Robert Cuccioli plays Tom, with Irungu Mutu, Angela Pierce, Elizabeth Ramos, and Richard Topol assuming multiple roles, including "Ambulance Man," "Business Woman," and "Photographer." In a war zone, their names are not known. A medic refers to Tom, who clings to his wheels, as "Bikeman."
The venue itself feeds the world of the play: Tribeca Performing Arts Center on Chambers Street is mere blocks away from the World Trade Center site, and as Bush notes, its three-quarter thrust stage, with the audience looking down on the action, "has a design like a Greek amphitheatre."
In collaboration with his designers---including scenic designer James Noone, lighting designer Kevin Adams, projection designer Darrel Maloney, and composer Jonathan Brielle---Bush sought "to filter the show through an impressionistic modern-art sensibility that allowed you to feel the emotional power of the event without being threatened by it."
Thus, the characters amble up, down, and around skeletal stairways and stairwells; inscrutable photographs are projected onto panels (the image of milk being poured into water creates an especially memorable, ghostly effect); orchestral music worthy of a movie soundtrack wails and keens, adding tension.
But despite the presence of those staircases "reaching up to the heavens [as] a kind of poetic metaphor for the event," as Bush puts it, the actors mostly exist in a blank space.
"I don't like walls," he says. "I love space and what it can do for your imagination."
Kenneth Jones is a theatre journalist and dramatist who writes at ByKennethJones.com and elsewhere.
Photos by Carol Rosegg