Two one-man plays reviewed.  New York City,  February 29, 2000
 
 
A Rare Bird Sighting and The Loneliest Monk:
Mintonís Playhouse comes down to the Lower East Side
 by Gordon Polatnick

Two one-man plays are currently in production downtown that offer a wrinkle in time not likely to wrinkle up again any time soon.  What are the odds of witnessing Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk brought warmly back to life on separate stages in the same weekend on the cooling cusp of the 21st century?  These two enigmatic musicians who cooked up stylistic polar extremes into a new jazz cuisine called bebop, are boldly fleshed out by two captivating performers: Jeff Robinson, in his play, Live Bird; and Rome Neal in Laurence Holderís new piece, Monk

Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982) was last seen as a misterioso, taciturn, spinning shaman in the 1988 documentary, Straight, No Chaser.  For many, the movie gave us our first glimpse of the man whoís name is surely more household than his music.  We got to see the pianist act strangely while playing his enchantingly idiosyncratic  compositions.  I was left with a feeling that the filmmakers were hiding the true Monk somewhere.  Twelve years later he has come out of hiding and can be found expounding brilliantly and passionately at the Nuyorican Poets Café (http://nuyorican.org/) thru March 26, 2000.  Thursdays - Saturdays at 7:30 P.M., Sundays at 3:00 P.M.   Tickets are $15.00. 

In giving Monk words, writer Lawrence Holder, courageously and effectively rewrites mythology by allowing the legend (whoís long been evidenced as intractably nutty, and uncommunicative) to hold forth as a competent, complex,  charming, athletic, and thirsty family man.  As opposed to the inscrutable Monk of  Straight, No Chaser, weíre treated to a flesh and blood portrayal of the strutting Thelonious Monk that was captured in the famous snapshot under the awning of Mintonís Playhouse alongside Howard McGee, Roy Eldridge, and Teddy Hill.   

Rome Neal captures the bravura of the Monk of that moment and extrapolates a character of enormous humanity, who dramatically details the high and low events of a life worth knowing.  Whether he lindy hops, jumps rope, sends up Louie Armstrong, Miles or Bud Powell, or simply sits in a chair, Neal punctuates his performance with a charismatic self-assurance that is spellbinding.   

The play covers Monkís story from womb to tomb in a non-linear, syncopated jazz style which can be as hard to follow as a Monk solo (to those new to the source material), but certainly no less satisfying.  The script messes with time and rhythm and unashamedly asks that you meet it on its own terms.   

Monk was not popularly hailed as a genius until after the death of Charlie Parker. Something new was needed to fill the void Bird left in his wake.  The freshest stuff was Monkís stuff from decades before, which needed no updating Ė being so far ahead of their time, time finally caught up to them.  And nowís the time to catch up with  Monk.  Unfortunately, Holder and Neal donít yet have the rights to play Monkís music in this production, but the available soundtrack puts you in the right frame of mind.  The Nuyorican Poets Café (212 780-9386) is located at 236 East 3rd Street between Avenues B and C, four blocks south of Charlie Parker Place. 

The place to see Charlie Parker (1920-1955) though, is a few blocks further south on the corner of Stanton and Allen at The Living Room (212 533-7235).  Every Saturday at 5:00 P.M. (for an unspecified limited engagement), Jeff Robinson, the creator of Live Bird, cajoles this unassuming café into a Harlem night club Ė summerís eve, 1947.  He launches immediately into a Parker solo on alto sax which sets the tone, and establishes his credentials as the man who would be Bird.   That taken care of, he then delivers a real time, barfly-on-the-wall peek at a plausible night in the life of Charlie Parker in his prime. 

We see Bird in flight as a hummingbird buzzing gracefully back and forth through the theatrical fourth wall.  He engages the audience directly at times: bumming a cigarette or seducing an attractive woman with poetry; alternately, heís talking to characters filled in by our imagination.  This device allows Robinson to paint his portrait of the legendarily impulsive Charlie Parker in full swaggering swing.  The heart, soul and mind of the man are exposed through his cunning dealings with the denizens of the jazz club, as the further exposition of his life story is neatly interwoven in an "interview" with a young reporter from Down Beat.   

In this manner, Robinson delves into Birdís musical innovations, and takes us back to his Kansas City schooling at the legendary 18th and Vine jam sessions:  Telling tales of such teachers as Count Basie, Buster Smith and Lester Young.  Pres gets an extended nod from Robinson who dons a porkpie hat and tails, then picks up a tenor for a stomping, bluesy interlude.  The genesis of this show comes from this Kansas City milieu where the historic Gem Theater remains and plays host to an annual presentation of Live Bird. 

Robinson, a native of St. Louis residing in Boston, travels to New York for the late afternoon show -- planting his bird seeds -- biding his time, waiting for confirmation.  One of his goals with the piece is to bring it to a jazz audience, preferably in Harlem.  The Living Room is not known to book much jazz, and it seems unlikely that passersby have any indication of what is taking place behind the curtained windows.  All the better for the cozily dispersed twenty or so audience members who were in house last weekend.  But you wonder how, at $5.00/per ticket, Robinson can earn enough to afford to make the weekly journey; and how long this can last; and what fuels this great effort?  

Birdís recently deceased widow, Doris Parker, caught the 1997 performance of the piece in a rare Harlem presentation at Twenty-Two West, and gave Jeff Robinson her blessings.   Robinsonís been living and working with this material for over seven years now, and Mrs. Parkerís validation says that this was time well spent.  She even offered  him fresh Bird quotes, which Robinson added to the script.  The production is lovingly dedicated to her.  

Both productions Monk and Live Bird are rare treats for jazz freaks and neophytes alike.   If you neglected to learn anything new during this years edition of Black History Month, hereís your chance to make amends.   
  

Gordon Polatnick is maintenance man for a jazzy guide to New York City Clubs at www.bigapplejazz.com. He also conducts private and public tours to his favorite jazz haunts.  Gordon can be reached by email at gordon@bigapplejazz.com.  Tel: 718 606-8442.

  

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