Bohemian Rhapsodies

Thirty-four-year-old Aaralyn Evans leans over a small plaque sticking out of the ground in Washington Square Park, and reads aloud to her boyfriend:

"On this spot, right now, you are on camera. There are a dozen highly sophisticated surveillance cameras that can pan around, tilt up or down, and zoom in to look at anything and everything they want to. Each of these cameras is on 24 hours a day and is equipped with infrared night vision."

Evans and her boyfriend turn around slowly and look up.

Bunnies, beatniks, and pirates, oh my: Mark Kaye, Jason Engdahl (in bunny suit), and Christos Pathiakis at the Madagascar Institute's "Dueling Re-Enactments."
photo: Jacob Pritchard
Bunnies, beatniks, and pirates, oh my: Mark Kaye, Jason Engdahl (in bunny suit), and Christos Pathiakis at the Madagascar Institute's "Dueling Re-Enactments."

"Huh," says Evans, raising an eyebrow. "I never noticed that before."

Nearby, under the Washington Arch, a coterie of peculiar characters—a woman with a wicker cage and a rat strapped to her head like a chapeau, another in a white dress garlanded with large rubber lobsters, another with a dozen Farrah Fawcett doll heads sprouting from a turtleneck sweater, and a man wearing three broad ties splayed like a fan—struggles to string up two cloth banners. The top standard reads, "Independent of Republic."

"The first Independent Republic of Greenwich Village didn't take, so we're trying it again," explains Chad Redmon, the man with three ties, as he wrestles against the wind.

Julia Solis, clothed in crustaceans, enters the fray, dragging a toy lobster on a leash—an homage to the French poet Gérard de Nerval, who was known to walk a live arthropod through the streets of Paris.

Evans finds the corresponding plaque. "On this spot, in December 1917, members of the Liberal Club, including artists Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Drick, and John Sloane, climbed on top of the arch to proclaim the newly established Independent Republic of Bohemia, and, by their declaration, they seceded from the rest of New York City. As a result of Duchamp's so-called Washington Square Revolution, the city locked the door at the base of the arch."

"I guess I hadn't seen that before, either," says Evans, turning to watch the strange scene.

With good reason. A closer examination of the plaques uncovers that they are paper printouts mounted on metal stands, attributed to the Madagascar Institute Historical Society. Thus, they are highly suspect. The Madagascar Institute describes itself as "an art combine in Brooklyn that specializes in large-scale sculptures and rides, live performances, and guerrilla art events." (They also provide classes on everything from balloon animals to welding for aspiring "ArtStars.") So it's not entirely surprising when a giant leering bunny head with human legs and bulbous red eyes gambols past with a bevy of bunnies hot on its tail.

The rabbits—winsome ladies in furry masks and cocktail dresses as well as big-eared demons with buck teeth—hop over to a tree near the fountain and spread out on a pink quilt. Some of them nibble on carrots while they lounge; others play hopscotch, toss cabbages, or write bunny- centric chalk graffiti on the pavement.

As part of the Madagascar Institute's "Dueling Re-Enactments," the bunnies are meant to represent a piece of history in Washington Square. I find the appropriate plaque stating that, on July 16, 1969, Edgar "Willow" Rothstein and Katherine "Moonbeam" Davis ingested 150 micrograms of lysergic acid diethylamide, leading to an outlandish but immersive hallucination wherein rabbits from fantasy and fiction descended on the spot.

"So we're not real," explains Anney Fresh, a bunny with hypnotic pink- shadowed eyes. "We're hallucinations, so we can mess with people's minds. That's how we'll win [the duel]."

"And we'll use giant carrots," pipes in another bunny.

"And water balloons," suggests another.

"And cabbages," suggests a third.

"And our disarming good looks," concludes Fresh.

Before I am lured down the rabbit hole, a small army of beatniks demands my attention by reading bad poetry through a megaphone. "America I've given you all and now I'm nothing," intones Cruz from under his black beret. "America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956 . . . "

Surprisingly, a small crowd gathers for Cruz's tribute to onetime Washington Square denizen Allen Ginsberg.

"When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?" continues Cruz.

"When you get some!" shouts Marlene Kryza, rolling through the crowd on her skateboard. Her skate-punk pals snicker and join her near the fountain where members of Ape Fight perform their highly contagious self-proclaimed single "You Think We Suck."

"Wanna buy some herb?" asks a man with a long beard, satin Chinese cap, colorful shirt, clown nose, and one Rollerblade. He shows me a small satchel that looks like it does, indeed, contain . . . herbs. I shake my head and he hits me up for 50 cents.

"Just another day in Washington Square," says 62-year-old regular Taduesz Biega, sitting on a park bench near the dog run.

In 1797, most of Washington Square was consigned to use as a potter's field because of the yellow fever epidemic (there are still an estimated 20,000 bodies under Washington Square). Until 1828, when state law banned dueling, it was a popular spot for contentious men to cross swords. It was also a good place to catch a militia drill or public hanging.

Much of this early history is recounted at an elm tree in the northeastern section of the park, where a group of pirates, including Chris Hackett, the somewhat naturally fearsome director of the Madagascar Institute, stages the last execution in Washington Square, near the real-life hanging tree. "He's guilty of super-humongous larceny and sailing while under the influence," snarls the persecutor while a grimacing brigand is hoisted and hung on a metal gibbet built specially for the purpose by Hackett.

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