Give Us Bread
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
June 5, 2009
1.3 million people in New York City live in homes without enough food. This sobering statistic is found in the program for Give Us Bread, the world premiere by a small collective of social activist artists know as The Anthropologists, who are currently bringing their latest collaboration to the Milagro Theatre at CSV Cultural Center. 1.3 million New Yorkers, an ancillary fact among many others in the program, yet one that sticks in my mind because it brings to light a dark shadow in our present, just as Give Us Bread enlightens us about a dark time in our history.
Give Us Bread is centered on the Food Riots of 1917, when the cost of food for millions of New Yorkers was painfully prohibitive. There is no quaint feeling of nostalgia here. The emotions are real. The situations are visceral—funny, sad, desperate.
Director Melissa Fendell Moschitto (also sound designer and Founding Artistic Director) and her company of six very talented women have fashioned a series of vignettes revolving around the interwoven lives of six female characters of the period—from their experiences aboard ship crossing the Atlantic to America, to their daily struggles to survive in New York's Lower East Side, to the frustration of rising prices and food profiteering, culminating in the riots and marching that took the city by storm in the winter of 1917.
From the program we learn that Give Us Bread is the culmination of nearly nine months' work. The company drew from many sources "anthropologically" digging for the root causes of the food riots and for the true hearts of those involved. The result is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking play, mixing elements of realism with dance and stylized movement to create a piece that is wholly within its own hybrid Anthropologists genre.
The actors have rendered remarkably truthful and sympathetic characters who may be archetypes of the period but who never approach caricature. All six women must be named for their superlative work: Jean Gotto, Jennifer Griffee, Jennifer Moses, Shayna Padovano, Katy Rubin, and Sonja Sweeney. This is ensemble work at its finest.
Andrew J. Merkel's lighting maximizes possibilities in the space to dramatic effect. Alexandra Rubin's costumes fit the characters and the period nicely. Maggie Pilat's scenery and set pieces serve the production well, utilizing scrims to effect the more non-realistic moments. Moschitto's sound is fine, too, though at times it is a bit too loud when used as underscoring. My quibble with the design team is that they may have tried to do too much—the Milagro Theatre doesn't really have the capabilities for the backlighting effects and scrim imagery attempted. But this is really a quibble—give them all credit for pushing the design envelope there.
Give Us Bread is especially good when things are kept simple. For example, by merely dashing back and forth the six women somehow manage to create the illusion of a huge riot. Really. Whether credit goes to Moschitto as director or Padovano who served as actor and choreographer, the movement is marvelous.
Give Us Bread is a completely engrossing 90 minutes of unabashed entertainment with a message about important events in New York City's past that unfortunately resonate to the plight of many today: 1.3 million hungry New Yorkers.