Once upon a time I thought all theater was Broadway. My early years as a freelance critic taught me differently. One summer I caught a tiny, low-budget production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in a Brooklyn church. Another time I ventured to a nondescript location in Hell’s Kitchen to see an experimental performance-art piece. In both cases I left unsure and a bit frightened, to suddenly see the limits of my perspective, to realize that my conception of theater was so terribly, naïvely narrow.
This is what was on my mind this weekend as I saw my first two live productions since March, both in Bushwick, both outdoors and both socially distanced: “Quince,” presented by the Team, and “Beast Visit,” from Here Arts Center and The Drunkard’s Wife. As the pandemic has forced us to reconsider what theater is and could be, these shows, sketchy though they were, reminded me of the diversity, daring and, to be frank, weirdness that can be found on the margins of the art form — and how work from those margins will define this time of the coronavirus.
On Friday a few handfuls of people in masks lined up outside of a gated community garden for “Quince,” written by Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez and directed by Ellpetha Tsivicos, about a Latinx girl named Cindy coming to terms with her queerness and her family relationships on the eve of her quinceañera.
In the underbaked story, Cindy fights with her mother about having a girlfriend and consults with a priest and a dancer about what to do. Meanwhile, her mother seeks advice from Cindy’s dead grandmother, who amiably haunts the backyard. Everyone is reconciled in under an hour.
Still, to be there was exhilarating. We were given flashy quinceañera-themed masks, adorned with pom-poms and frills, at the entrance to the garden, where a three-piece band played as we were guided in. Trees arched overhead, strung with streamers and piñatas, and in the center of the garden stood a bright multicolored gazebo. Scarlet Moreno’s vibrant costumes included a tiered turquoise quinceañera dress and a stunning two-piece indigenous dance outfit with a magnificent feathered headdress.
An oasis of green — and bright pinks, yellows and blues — set against the noisy backdrop of Bushwick, “Quince” felt like a backyard party. Add a touch of psychedelia and whimsy and that’s also what you got with “Beast Visit,” written and directed by Normandy Sherwood and staged in a sculpture garden less than two miles away.
Audience members were told to don either a bright pink or dandelion yellow hoop skirt and, instead of taking a seat, to stand in a giant numbered circle marked on the ground. Other “beast-repellent” materials were provided for our comfort: hand-sewn masks, bug-repellent bracelets, face shields. In this theatrical playground, a lavender, pink and baby blue shack sat alongside a sculpture of an open mouth with a long, Starburst-colored tongue, next to a blue tepee with paper lanterns cascading down the side.
“Beast Visit” presents a handful of eclectically dressed junkyard creatures (Sherwood did the costumes, too) who seem gleaned from the imagination of Madeleine L’Engle. They each introduce themselves, speaking of their loneliness and feelings of displacement during the pandemic.
Both productions had their fair share of flaws: The endearing “Quince” was too simplistic, while “Beast Visit” was lovably quirky but narrow in its concept.
And then there were the circumstantial issues: At my performance of “Quince,” the generator broke, making the sound muddled and inconsistent, and the show was interrupted every few minutes by the J train barreling past on overhead tracks. “Beast Visit” had no J train, but several planes and a helicopter droned by in the sky.
Because of safety precautions, it took a long time to check in and take our places at both shows. But that doesn’t fully explain why in these awkwardly shaped settings, some views were blocked by trees and other natural obstructions.
Yet the audiences — full of couples and tatted up millennials with bike helmets in hand — were patient and game to play along. At “Beast Visit,” two girls in front of me gaily drank the show’s signature cocktail and took pictures of each other in their hoop skirts, laughing and praising how weird and how totally “Brooklyn” the show was.
After months of Zoom plays, I had imagined coming back to the bigger productions I missed: “Six,” “Coal Country,” “Company.” What I hadn’t considered was rediscovering the “Alice in Wonderland” experience of wandering to some random public space or hole in the wall, perhaps still unsure if you’re even in the right place, and falling into an artistic rabbit hole.
In the car ride home after the Saturday show, I saw the Brooklyn Bridge and, beyond it, the Manhattan skyline, dressed up in lights as though getting ready for a party that may never start. The Cort, the Booth, the Majestic, the Shubert — I thought of how, for months, my vision of returning to the theater had me stepping back into the glow of Times Square.
Now that I’ve seen live theater return, I’ve revised my vision. When theater came back, it was not with Playbills but with handmade masks.
Performed Aug. 21 and 22 at the People’s Garden, Brooklyn.