The poster in the window of the Axis Theater promotes Attorney Street, the final installment in a trilogy of solo shows written and performed by Edgar Oliver. Oliver is half hidden behind a brick wall in the poster art, peeking out ever so cautiously. I wonder, what’s he so afraid of?
Once inside I descend stairs to the performance space, dark and intimate as expected, but not silent. Street sounds are piped in, noises from a particularly animated street, familiar but not quite real. Muffled conversations, water gently crashing in a harbor, freight boat horns, bicycle bells and diesel trucks are the sounds accompanying the audience as we wait for Oliver to appear. Soon, he does, and what he offers is less an hour-length tale, and more a series of vignettes, most set in NYC, some in his Georgia birthplace. The element that binds them all together is that we experience them through the unique eyes of Edgar Oliver.
The first story he tells is from his childhood, and I find it odd to imagine this tall baritone with such a signature speaking style as ever having been a child. As the evening progresses, though, it’s tough to see him as anything other than a child, even now, just days removed from his 60th birthday.
He tells us that when he was forced to move out of his E. 10th Street apartment he would avoid packing by wandering the streets of New York like a lost boy, a wild animal or a combination of the two. That struck me as the best description of what I was watching. The curiosity, wonder and imagination of a child, able to pack an unbelievable adventure into the commonplace experiences of everyday. The peculiarities that make wild animals fascinating and unpredictable. A simple visit to Astoria from lower Manhattan becomes, in his telling, an epic quest that must be completed, damn the fears and anxieties he would face. Oliver looks and sounds like an heir to Bram Stoker, but his content is Tolkien all the way.
The stage is bare, the lighting minimal, keeping the vast majority of the space in darkness for the full hour. Musical interludes of 5 – 7 seconds break up each chapter. Sometimes the audience seemed to want to laugh, but they weren’t sure if they should, or were supposed to. Other moments are clearly played for laughs, and those felt like such a relief.
He’s hyper observant, which isn’t uncommon in New York. Others have commented that standing on any street corner in this city provides free entertainment as you take in the array of characters parading by. Oliver is seemingly one of those characters, although he posits that we’ll never see him the way he sees himself. Maybe many of us don’t see him at all. He isn’t amazed by the 8 million characters in the naked city. He’s transfixed by rats and cats and weeds in cracks and a statue of Poseidon on Staten Island. He describes so many things as beautiful. While there’s a loneliness and sadness running through this show, I can’t help but envy anyone who sees the world that way.
His father’s death just before he was born left him without a role model, or a north star to show him how to act in the world. So he just makes his way, wandering, curious, observing. The aforementioned Poseidon is one of the father figures Edgar pines after in the course of the show. He sees strength in the mythic figure, just as he hears warmth in the man’s voice thanking him for riding the Staten Island ferry, and the affection shown by a father he observes having a cute interaction with his son in a public bathroom. All of these moments trigger an awareness of absence for him.
Oliver has been a part of the downtown theater scene for over 30 years as an actor, a playwright, a poet, and a storyteller. A 2009 mention in the Village Voice described him as “the kind of legend that inspires people to move to New York.” Therefore as a distinct voice of near iconic status, a chance to see Edgar Oliver is not to be missed. His style, his care, his flair for the romantic, all showcase the potential heights that can be reached in a solo storytelling show.
When I ascend the stairs and return to the land of the living after the show I make an effort to observe a little more. Not the people this time. What catches my eye? An overflowing garbage can on the corner of W. 4th and Sheridan Square. This is what personal storytelling performance should do. It’s unlikely I’ll ever see the world through Edgar Oliver’s eyes, but he makes me want to try. This warm evening is out of place in early November, just as Oliver must feel, a grown man self identifying as a little boy, hidden behind that wall lamenting the loss of years and the fact that soon the empty lots he finds so beautiful will be replaced by high rises and the city, the land of his many adventures, will change.