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.

"I am Harry K. Thaw, the deranged Pittsburgh millionaire!" exclaims Matt Levy with a wild look in his eyes and a plastic light saber grasped in his hand. "I despise Stanford White. I hate him. I will find him and I will kill him."

According to the plaque, Stanford White, the architect who designed the Washington Arch, took the virginity of Thaw's favorite chorus girl and future bride, Evelyn Nesbit. Thaw shot White in Madison Square Garden, which White also designed. The resulting trial was the most famous of its age.

"Harry K. Thaw was the first man acquitted of first-degree murder by reason of mental defect," explains Gideon Levy in an immaculate suit representing his historic character, White. "Apparently, the very thought of his fiancée being manhandled by a lascivious architect drove him absolutely maaaad."

Quite suddenly, Levy descends on Levy and a light-saber duel ensues (a less than historical nod to the light-saber battles the brothers facilitate throughout New York City). On the other side of the fountain, the skateboarders suddenly attack J-Sun Burns, the drug-dealing panhandler, in a re- enactment of the Washington Square sequence from Larry Clark's film Kids. The surrealists begin a slow, steady march around the fountain, carrying a small replica of the arch and a sign that reads only "Woe." The giant, freaky bunny head crashes a pre-wedding photo op under the arch and begins dancing with the nervous groom. (Let it be known Paul Ust spent his final moments as a bachelor in the arms of a hallucinatory bunny idol.) The beatniks toss fake books into the air until the ground is littered with titles like A Coney Island of the Mind, Junky, and The Dharma Bums. The pirates wheel a water cannon into the melee. Hackett ignites it and a jet of water shoots into the air, drenching bunnies, beatniks, surrealists, tourists, hippies, skate punks, musicians, onlookers, college students, dogs, kids, and lovers of Washington Square Park.

"Who won?" shouts one of the Madagascar accomplices.

"No one," bellows Hackett as he brushes dreadlocks from his face and pops open a treasure chest of champagne.

"See," says Biega, the old-timer, fanning himself with a newspaper. "That's the way it is."

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