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Reverend Billy's Other Love

“What is peace?” Reverend Billy asks his audience as he blasts out onto the stage of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in Other Love, his new one-man show directed by Tony Torn and Savitri Durkee.

“The only thing that matters is peace,” he continues in his thundering, evangelical no-holds-barred style. “The earth is in flames with every major religious tradition hijacked by their right wing. The language of peace can’t even make it to the History Channel.”

For traumatized New Yorkers, this statement is not just lip service. It’s a real issue wrestled with now on a daily basis, probably every time we get on the L or J, M and Z, or any other tube feed, tunnel or bridge, into and out of Manhattan. Other Love presents a true story about two men from polar opposite worlds who smash into one another on the street and how, in a roundabout way, they move from feelings of murderous rage to a peaceful resolution. The anecdotes are accompanied by snazzy trombone interludes played by Wayne Walcott.

Reverend Billy is best known to habitués of Williamsburg as the man who protested against the rumored opening of Starbucks in what is now Fabienne’s Café (see Rail, Oct./Nov. 2001). In front of the storefront’s then-boarded up windows, he and the members of the “Stop Shopping” choir sang against global capitalism using that old time religion—gospel.

Here the Reverend performed not outdoors, his normal haunt, but inside, in a theater space above the actual church of St. Mark’s in the Bowery. The sidewalk rage he is so famous for became an office space of rage. “Doomsday,” he proclaimed, “has become security, racism is called crime fighting, advertising is free speech, transnational chains are neighborhoods, and transnationals are God.”

Amen and hallelujah to the one and only Reverend!

But then the Reverend did something astonishing. He ripped off his clerical collar and garb and became his alter ego, the actual actor Bill Talen. We could feel his pain and shared vulnerability vacillate between his interior dialogue and the audience. Reverend Billy is a demanding and commanding presence—there is no doubt about that; but this material as Bill T. is a work in progress, and a brave gamble for any actor who is renowned for a singular persona.

Talen delivered his monologue about two men, polar opposites, bumping into one another on the street, and then switched to a story about bugs and dad and fishing, something I couldn’t quite follow. But when he spoke about the wild coyote of Central Park, which some readers of New York tabloids will remember actually appeared a few years back, he soared. “The coyote,” he began, “a practitioner of invisibility. Why did you come to New York, to make a killing, yet to get killed?” Wiley Coyote is the symbol of unrepentant wild nature, and so Billy sardonically and correctly observes, “If I were that coyote I would get a manager or an agent right now! Imagine, while running towards the Hotel Pierre he gets darted down.”

He switched to a monologue about that day, with the place coming up Greenwich Street on 9/11, “too low for a real jet.” “All the I love you’s mouthed into cellphones at that moment were universal I love you’s,” he says. But when he mentions the people trapped in the building hearing the 2nd plane hit, it’s the part of the show that strikes the rawest nerve. A survivor from the Towers runs to the Intrepid (will mock fighter planes save anyone in a real war?) and goes on a pay phone. He’s told by the person he is talking to, “We’re getting calls from all over the world and people are saying I love you.”

“But at some point,” he says, “the ‘I love you’s’ turned into one long ‘I kill you.’”

The story then meandered back to dad and the fish and then the two men bumping into one another again and they finally managed to resolve their differences. Bill T. is on to something here, and he just needs some time and space to pull it all together. And I think we should all wait to see what he comes up with. Hallelujah and amen!


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail


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