As theater fans are well aware, yesterday was the [insert number here]th Annual Tony Awards. And as most cycling fans now know, the surprise winner for best play was five-time Tour de France winner Bernard "The Badger" Hinault's one man show, "Au Contraire," in which he rails against a world gone fou. Highlights from Hinault's performance include:
On whether the Tour is too hard: “The Tour is not too hard. It is necessary to stop complaining. Cycling is a hard profession, but it’s better than going to the factory. A racer who wins is never paid too much. If you really want to win, you fight until your last breath.”
On Armstrong’s comeback: “I hope he will not be there. Is he afraid of France? Nobody forced him to come, he only has to stay home! He cannot win the Tour. I hope that Contador gives him a beating.”
On doping: “The French have taken as much as the others. What is not normal is that they are not treated in the same manner as other sportsmen.”
On earpieces: “I am against them. It is just a ‘Game Boy’ that has a gigolo attached at the end telling the racer when to take a piss. With Guimard, we studied the map and the wind the morning before the stage.”
On Greg LeMond: “He was a good racer, but not an attacker. He was unable to make tactics by himself. In 1986, I kept my promise to help him win the Tour. Me? I just wanted to have fun!”
But Hinault also takes on more than just cycling in his curmudgeonly tour de force. Here are a few less-publicized quotes:
On North Korea: "I don't understand why everyone's giving them such a hard time. This world could use a little less freedom and a little more oppression. Kim Jong-il rules like I used to race: relentlessly, and with a slight pompadour."
On GM's bankruptcy: "What a bunch of sissies. They were on the right track with the Hummer. The public are sheep. If they're not buying your cars, make them buy your cars. As for the unions, it is necessary for them to stop complaining. Building SUVs is a hard profession, but it's better than going to the factory."
On Mickey Rourke's performance in "The Wrestler": "I don't see what all the fuss was about. That performance was lukewarm at best. Darren Aronofsky actually wanted me for the role but I turned him down because I didn't like the ending. I don't want to ruin it, but the wrestler dies. What a total loser."
On Dunkin' Donuts's new Waffle Breakfast Sandwich: "Surprisingly tasty."
However, while Hinault's show may be the toast of Broadway (I'm sure he's browbeating a waiter at Sardi's as I type this), there's another bicycle-themed production that was tragically overlooked. In fact, I didn't even know it existed until late last week. I am of course referring to Elizabeth Battersby's one-woman musical, "The Belle of the Ball Bearings," which is currently playing at The Theater for the New City at 155 1st Avenue in Manhattan. Here is the description:
In BELLE OF THE BALL BEARINGS you can ride your bike to the theater and not worry about locking it outside. In fact, you can keep your eye on it during the show; it'll be parked onstage and made part of the set. The show is inspired by Ms. Battersby's life experience as a bike racer, bike shop owner, bike messenger, and soul mate to everyone who lives life on two wheels.
Elizabeth Battersby sets her musical in 1995, "When computers were just coming in and New York City was a little more interesting." She portrays unique and memorable personalities that include Bike Mechanics, Bicycle messengers, an Irish Grandmother, a Mom, a Rabbi, and a Veteran. The show combines a rock band with added percussion, including the bicycle tools.
"Each brake pad, each sprocket - has it's own story!"
While any sensible person would read this and resolve to stay as far away from the theater as possible, as someone who has made it his life's work to probe the unseemliest recesses of cycling "culture" I knew right away that I had to see this production. This was extremely unfortunate for the person who alerted me to the show, as she had expected me to laugh it off but was instead forced to accompany me. And so it was that within hours of learning of the existence of a bicycle-themed musical we were on our way to the Theater for the New City to see it:
When it comes to art, I endeavor to approach any new work with an open mind. However, I must confess that as we approached the theater I felt very much like I was entering a burning building from which everybody else was fleeing. This sensation only grew stronger as I studied the poster:
Few words are more horrifying when used together than "Bike Shop Musical." It's a phrase almost as off-putting as "Do Not Enter," "Danger of Death," or "Sun Dried Tomatoes." I knew I would need to fortify myself, but we only had a few minutes until the show began, and there was only one bar close enough to the theater affording us ample time to bolster our resolve:
Yes, that is indeed the Coyote Ugly saloon, basis of the 2000 feature film of the same name. Now, I'd never been to the Coyote Ugly, nor had I seen the film, so I figured that if the place had been the basis of an actual movie it couldn't be all that bad. Naturally, I was mistaken:
If anything, you should probably avoid visiting places that have been the basis for an eponymous feature film. The Titanic is a good example of this. You should also expect to spend way too much money. Despite the fact that it was still happy hour along most of the Eastern seaboard, a brace of name-brand whiskeys at Coyote Ugly relieved me of a brace of sawbucks:
Now, I should point out that I don't count pennies when I'm entertaining, and I'm fully appreciative of the fact that one should expect to spend a bit extra when going to the theater. Also, in some establishments you're not paying for the drink; rather, you're paying for the surroundings. However, it's hard not to feel slightly indignant when those surroundings consist mostly of a curtain of dirty bras:
By the way, there are signs in Coyote Ugly which forbid photography on penalty of a fine. As such, I took these photos surreptitiously, though at the same time I felt entitled to snap a few pictures since I had essentially already paid a hefty fine at the bar. Also, it's a good thing I was wearing my Vittorias, since their proven bathroom traction allowed me to remain sure-footed when I visited the urinal:
After we finished our drinks and I did a little jig on the bar in a wet t-shirt, we headed over to the theater, which contained an anteroom being employed as a large art gallery. At this point, I felt like I was in a dentist's waiting room, since I had a bad feeling I was not only about to endure an hour of pain, but was also paying for the privilege:
Once through the gallery, a Fuji poster alerted us to the location of the theater itself:
And here's the set, which as you can see is in fact a reasonable facsimile of a bike shop:
As we waited for the show to begin, we studied the program and contemplated the list of songs we were about to endure:
We also read about the show's writer and star:
Sufficiently assured of Ms. Battersby's "street cred," I took a closer look at the set. Props included not only a fixed-gear bicycle:
But also a p-far:
The playwright Anton Chekhov (or was it Dmitri Fofonov?) famously said, ""If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." I assumed Ms. Battersby was familiar with this quote, so I wondered how these particular items would be employed, and what sort of grisly tragedy they might portend.
Speaking of portentous, here's the band, whose keyboardist backed Ms. Battersby on vocals and sounded almost exactly like Mr. G from "Summer Heights High:"
After we were briefed on the location of the fire exits (I had to restrain my reluctant accomplice for making off towards the nearest one at this point) and instructed not to take photos without the permission of the producers (an instruction I chose to disregard) the play began. Some patter ambiguously conveyed that Ms. Battersby's primary character, Bobby, was some kind of third-generation family bike shop owner and spinster, after which she launched into "I Fix Things," an ebullient number about how she fixes things. As she sang, she also pretended to, well, fix things. It was at this point that Ms. Battersby's earnestness coupled with the absurdity inherent in the idea of a bike shop musical caused me to shift awkwardly in my seat and to avert my gaze, since even though I was all the way in the back of the theater I was still pretty close to Ms. Battersby and I was afraid that if I met her eye I might start laughing. This would have been a terrible thing, as I had no intention whatsoever of embarrassing Ms. Battersby. Moreover, she seemed more than capable of embarrassing herself.
Fortunately, my facial muscles relaxed and I eventually settled in. For the third number, Ms. Battersby took the metaphorical Chekhovian rifle off the wall by grabbing the fixed-gear and singing "Streetwise:"
Streetwise was a song about Bobby's messenger days, and Ms. Battersby straddled the fixed-gear bicycle and mimed riding through traffic by rocking it back and forth as she sang:
By now I was beginning to find Ms. Battersby's unfettered enthusiasm endearing, though at the same time the fact is that watching bike messengering rendered in musical form is exactly what you'd think it would be: cringe-inducing. "Quicksilver" seems like a documentary in comparison.
On the other hand, "Spinning Rabbi," which Ms. Battersby sings in the "Uncle Rabbi" character (complete with Yiddish accent), was supposed to be funny, and to my profound relief it actually was:
Less humorous was "How Do You Explain," a heavy-handed number in which Grandma Penny Farthing (note the shawl) sings of the empowerment women gained from bicycling at the turn of the 20th century. Yes, "The Bell of the Ball Bearings" is that ambitious. Needless to say, the second Chekhovian rifle was fired here:
By the time the Bobby character implies she may have killed a teenage girl visiting from the midwest while out on a messenger run in the song "14th Street Union Square," I was positively reeling, since it was now clear Ms. Battersby was going to leave no melodramatic stone unturned. I assume "The Belle of the Ball Bearings" is a work of fiction, but if it is indeed based on fact then this revelation certainly adds a whole new dimension to the play. Either way, though, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was watching someone trying to work their way through some emotional issues. Then again, I get that feeling from pretty much any musical, so most likely the problem lies with me.
In any case, I sincerely applaud Elizabeth Battersby for having the courage to mount such an ambitious and uninhibited performance. I also applaud her creativity and admire her obvious commitment to providing entertainment. Sure, it turned out in the end that a bike shop musical is exactly as absurd as you'd think it would be, but that's certainly not for Ms. Battersby's lack of trying. Of course, one could argue that it's because of Ms. Battersby's efforts that the play is absurd, but I disagree. When it comes to bike shop musicals, I would argue that absurdity is the only possible outcome.