a musical fable of 9/11
Photos from the 2016 production will be posted shortly
We open with a brief musical prologue in the present. Police Detective Joe Stepanek recalls what it was like “Fifteen Years Ago” when, as a rookie patrolman assigned to control the crowd, he witnessed the “two proud towers turned to sand.” The action of the play unfolds at the Towers Diner near Ground Zero on Christmas Eve 2002. Heeding the clarion cries for a return to “business as usual,” the profiteers are moving in, cashing in on the tax breaks that were supposedly going to help the little guy. Luxury condos are in the future for this leftover bit of real estate which served as a haven for the rescue and recovery workers. Not only are the staff losing their jobs, but also their identity as a family, forged in trauma:
Harriet, the tough-as-putty manager, whose dream is to open her own Italian restaurant where the servers sing opera selections;
Antonio, the immigrant chef and Dante devotee who shares her fantasies of culinary glory;
Jenny, the waitress, an aspiring actress in love with a poet who enlisted in the army after 9/11 and was promptly shipped overseas;
Felipe, the effervescent busboy who aspires to be a fireman, and who finds in the diner staff people who treat him like he matters.
Even though the Christmas Blizzard of 2002 has begun, a few hardy souls make it to the Diner that night:
“The Duchess,” a vision in faded finery who totes around her collection of vintage magazines that keep alive for her a world of happier times;
Kiki, a barfly with the soul of a romantic, who is forever getting engaged (even though they never marry her);
The Forgotten One, who carries her raggedy possessions in a shopping bag, most preciously a faded Xerox photo of someone she’s been trying to locate since 9/11, over a year ago;
Mara, a runaway teenager, searching for love in all the wrong places;
Major Beauvine, an evangelical chorister parading her three caroling children around lower Manhattan for the Lord;
Gil, a rough-hewn rescue worker who lost his job and family due to his obsession with "The Pile."
Duffy, a fireman who’s in it for the pension and the OT –- as someone remarks, they can’t all be heroes.
Into this world wander two outsiders. The first is Chris, a mysterious young man in a Santa suit, under which he wears an FDNY shirt emblazoned with the figure of a dragon, searching for shreds of his lost identity. Christened Dragonslayer by Felipe, who decides that must be the nickname of his fire company, Chris remembers nothing of his life, yet seems to know these “Lonely Strangers” and comes bearing a redeeming present for each. His nemesis is Damon Slade, real estate mogul (or is it mongrel?) extraordinaire (The Donald and The Damon used to be known as the Twin Towers of New York real estate ‑‑ an unfortunate metaphor, but who knew?) Slade’s limo has broken down outside the very diner he plans to tear down in the coming weeks. While trying to counter Slade’s taunting of the “losers” who are victims of his entrepreneurial vision, Chris little by little comes to sense his own powers. At the end of the first act, it becomes clear that his conflict with Slade is a battle that has been raging through the centuries.
There’s a reason these “Lonely Strangers” have been brought together this Christmas Eve. Each has a connection to 9/11 and so to each other -- though Chris’s connection is at first unclear. Slade offers to introduce the actress Jenny to People Who Matter (for a price). She spurns him, and when he persists, she is driven to confess the painful secret she’s been holding back even from her friends: that her soldier boyfriend has been reported MIA. Even Slade drops his cynicism for a moment of sympathy –- but only a moment. When Mara returns from a disheartening phone call to her parents (instead of looking for her they’re out at a party), Slade turns to Plan B. Dazzled by Slade’s promise of “Bright Lights, Big City,” to everyone’s dismay, Mara accepts. On their way out, Slade unmasks the Duchess as his cleaning lady from the Towers. The memories that the Duchess has been refusing to face suddenly come pouring forth. She denounces Slade for pushing everyone aside to make his escape that morning. Slade laughs it off (“I simply can’t afford to die”) and leaves with Mara. Turning back to the event, the Duchess is overwhelmed by the recollection that Chris was a firefighter on the scene. Knocked down as Slade barreled through the crowd, Chris, though dazed, headed back towards the building. The Duchess herself, with prophetic foreboding, begged him, “Don’t go up the stairs, there’s a dragon up the stairs.” Chris didn’t listen but ran back into the burning tower, “into the dragon’s mouth.”
The realization that Chris was one of the victims on that “sky-of-blue September day” leaves everyone shaken, awed that they were brought together this night to witness his return, a miracle. Most shaken of all is The Forgotten One, because of course it’s Chris she has been searching for all these months. With his identity restored, Chris realizes his mission is not quite complete. He goes outside (leaving no footprints in the snow). Soon after, Mara returns to the Diner, having run from Slade’s limo because of a scary vision, in which it seemed Slade and his driver morphed into ferocious dragons and, even worse, made her feel like she was ”no one in particular.” Quite the opposite of Chris, who had tried to convince her she was someone in particular. She was emboldened to escape the dragons by what she can only describe as a passing “shadow, if shadows can be bright.” The policeman from the prologue, Officer Stepanek, re-enters, with the Carolers confirming his report of a bizarre event. Slade’s limo seemed to vaporize before their eyes, swallowed up by a “bright shadow” which Mara now realizes was Chris. All struggle to comprehend the mystery of the Dragonslayer, who has returned from the inferno. But why? Then Felipe remembers something Chris had said earlier, “Hope is a kind of miracle.” That is the true gift he brought them.
Now, when the warlords rule the earth,
Let a simple child's birth
Be a call to make the killing cease
Reminding all, by the gods that each adores,
That there are no "holy" wars.
Let them hear our sacred cries for peace.
Occupation: Dragonslayer began life as a commission from Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre. An embryonic version, Occupation: Troubadour, was presented as a Christmas musical by Trenton's professional theatre, Passage Theatre. Despite the horrors of 9/11 -- not the least of which was the behavior of certain politicians and business leaders -- in the holiday season of 2002 the writers returned to the musical because they felt a need to memorialize something remarkable, the genuine spirit of those first few months afterwards. Fifteen years later, that spirit remains a haunting memory.
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