The Civilians are known for crafting docu-musical theater works that explore complex issues, mining grey areas to create nuanced portraits of born-again Christians and porn stars alike. Their often-compelling new show, In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards, at the Irondale Center, charts the struggle of residents and businesses to fight real estate developer Bruce Ratner from seizing their property under the eminent domain law. While the show features actors portraying Ratner, mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, the focus is clearly on the other side.
The intermissionless show opens with company member Colleen Werthmann welcoming the audience before launching into a series of questions, including asking for a definition of eminent domain. The seating is on two risers that face each other, making it easy for Werthmann to divide the group into teams and assign points accordingly. It’s a jarring approach that transforms us from strangers in a room into a community and makes us aware of the faces sitting across the stage. At the end of the short exercise, she confesses that the game was rigged as the music swells and the cast fills the stage.
It’s a chilling moment that underscores a theme of the show — how democracy can be subverted by powerful corporate interests and the citizens who tried to make a stand. Among the most vividly portrayed opponents of the project is Daniel Goldstein (played by Greg McFadden), an apolitical guy who finds himself taking a stand for the first time in his life when he refuses to sell his condo, even as all his neighbors cut deals and move out. The primal idea of home also resonates with longtime residents of surrounding Fort Greene who have seen their neighborhood become unrecognizable as gentrification progressed, and fear being priced out of their homes.
There’s a lot of matreial here to squeeze into 100 minutes, and while director Steven Cosson does an admirable job, the staging can feel unfocused. With the action moving from the stage to projections on the far side wall, it can be tiring to follow the transitions. Morever, while a sense of community is gained from the alley theater style staging, the show would benefit from a more conventional proscenium stage.
One big plus is Michael Friedman’s songs, including “The Four Brooklyns”, which whimsically divides residents into socio-economical groups, and the heartfelt finale, “The Neighborhood,” that captures the spirit of what Brooklyn means to the many people who call it home.