Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Every year for three days in early June, the Howl! Festival takes over Tompkins Square Park and fills it with poetry, music, dance, and balloon art, all in celebration of Allen Ginsberg's raunchy but officially not obscene poem "Howl." The fest is family friendly: There's all sorts of face-painting and carnival games for kids in the afternoon. But grown-ups are the real target audience, especially with the fest's kickoff, a group reading of "Howl" that tends to put the James Franco movie to shame. The festival's most outstanding event is also the most daring—the Sunday-night "Low Life" variety revue of drag queens, go-go dancers, and Butoh performers, presented by the Jackie Factory, which is legendary for mixing high camp with serious dollops of history. Last time around, they gave a nod to clubs and festivals of the past, from the protest performance art of ACT UP to the outdoor drag festival Wigstock (which originated in the same park), all while serving two hours of subversive entertainment. It was obscenely good. howlfestival.com
What could be more downtown than celebrating downtown's most notorious tourist trap? The fried dough sizzles in Mulberry St., Abel Ferrara's feature-length video doc. With the self-appointed celluloid King of New York extolling the heartburn charms of Little Italy's annual Feast of San Gennaro, Mulberry St. is an extended gloss on Ferrara–ego idol Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, especially the scene in which Harvey Keitel complains that "with that feast on, ya can't even move in your own neighborhood," to which De Niro makes the heartfelt reply, "I hate that feast with a passion!" You might, too, but Ferrara fucking loves it! Stocked with highly local celebs and garrulous performers from his previous films, not to mention the irrepressible Ferrara frequently schmoozing on camera, Mulberry St. is a festival of self-dramatization in which it is impossible to judge whether Scorsese captured or invented the essence of Little Italy street jive. In either case, Ferrara has preserved it. In 50 years, this warm, cheesy, sometimes rancid slice (of life) will be a holy relic.
This past May, when ex-Fleetwood Mac waif Stevie Nicks canceled her New York concert because of illness, there was plenty of consolation: Two days later at the Highline Ballroom, there was the 21st annual Night of 1000 Stevies, for which Stevie wannabes fly in on white wings from all over the world, aping her fringed ponchos and her gypsy-like, slightly witchy eccentricity, clearly created by 1970s California via a little touch of heaven. They lip-synch her songs (whether the ethereal "Rhiannon" or the defiant "Stand Back"), sing them live, and sometimes just interpret them with their essence. They're men, and they're women, and sometimes you're not sure. And after a few hours of their amazingly committed performances, you're convinced that not only are they all Stevie, but we are all Stevie. Jackie Factory producers Chi Chi Valenti, Johnny Dynell, and Hattie Hathaway make this into a flower-bearing happening every year, but this year, the night started with a special video by Stevie herself, promising that some day, she'll show up in such an amazing disguise that no one will know it's her until she sneaks onto the stage and sings "Edge of Seventeen." So it is authorized! mothernyc.com/stevie
The 10th anniversary of September 11 passed last month and, blessedly, so did the tidal wave of mawkishness. Really, was there ever a time when the citizenry and the media and our elected representatives tried so desperately to out-mourn one another about something? A remembrance of 9/11 is always more than necessary, but to smother the tragedy's anniversary under so much conspicuous grief does it no real honor. The glitz, the video flags, the parade of politicos—it all gets insufferable. Our favorite public artwork, though, is an elegant and silent rebuke to all that. It's noble in its simplicity, inspirational, and also, frankly, a bit spooky. Not to mention epic. Each year, we have been moved by the Tribute in Light, as its powerful white beams shoot up into the night sky from near the World Trade Center site. Originally meant to conclude with this past anniversary of 9/11, we're happy to hear that the project will be continuing into the future. Our thanks to all the folks who conceived of it and who have put it together in subsequent years. It has been the finest way to honor those lost on that day. mas.org/programs/tributeinlight
Governors Island is already one of our favorite places on earth: a playground of uncrowded pathways, colonial architecture, and pristine views unspoiled by out-of-control condo development—no one lives there. So we didn't think the Island could really get any better, until the massive Figment Festival moved in. The three-day participatory art fest this year featured 400 performances and interactive installations, including the return of Aqua Attack!!, a battle between good and evil soaking-wet stuffed animals. David Koren, executive producer, says the founders were inspired by the Burning Man ethos when they created this temporary haven of creativity specifically for this unique island in 2007. Since then, Figment has become one of the most exciting arts weekends within ferry distance of Manhattan. Every June. newyork.figmentproject.org/figment-nyc-2011
With Radio City Music Hall given over to Cirque du Soleil and Madison Square Garden closed for renovations this summer, most of the season's big shows took place at slightly more far-flung venues—or at least, ones that would require either some sort of beyond-the-subway transportation to travel between. The four-year-old Prudential Center, located smack in the middle of downtown Newark, is probably the best-designed of the lot from crowd-control patterns to food offerings, though surely some of that is the result of its newness. After all, when Nassau Coliseum was built way back when, the term "gluten-free" probably showed up as consecutive answers in an acrostic once, if the two words were ever in the same space at all. The Prudential Center's real advantage, though, is that it's just blocks away from Newark Penn Station, making it easier to reach from Manhattan than, say, a venue in Gowanus. After every event, the telescreens that are normally used to cross-promote future happenings are given over to a live broadcast of that train station's in-house video feed, which details departure times for upcoming trains back to New York or points west. This way, your bathroom break—or your picture with a cardboard cutout of R. Kelly—doesn't have to result in your getting stuck away from home for too long. 165 Mulberry Street, Newark, 973-757-6000, prucenter.com (07102)