Review: ‘We Are Bandits’ in a single community

Theater happens wherever it’s made, and in two places at once: the theater itself and whatever place is created on the stage. In the case of the lively, outré “We Are Bandits,” the theater is the third-floor of the Asian Arts Initiative in Center City, and the place created there is a city park called “Our World.”

“Our World” is an okay park right now, but the city’s movers and shakers have plans. There’ll be development and the appearance of community involvement, there’ll be big money and architecture and design. And there’ll be trouble.

In a broad sense, “We Are Bandits” is about the power of the neighborhood veto. It’s also about community-building, which here is an evolution that spans years over a performance time of 90 minutes (about 20 minutes too long for the show’s own good). “We Are Bandits” is the innovative creation, free to the public and with original music, of the theater group called Applied Mechanics — smart, young local artists who seek ways to involve audiences in unconventional theater devised by the entire creative team.

I delighted in the edginess of “We Are Bandits” – the way the stories of the people who live and come to this park are told simultaneously; you catch these tales in snatches while walking around the large playing area during the entire performance. These folks all come together only a few times, most poignantly after sad news about one of them flashes from phone to phone on social media. Finally, these disparate people evolve to change the establishment they’ve been questioning.

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I’m not really giving anything away – it’s clear after about 20 minutes that “We Are Bandits” is a stylized journey that begins with youthful idealism and ends in the chambers of City Hall and the storefronts of progressive non-profit agencies. We’ve lived though it – and in it – all before, here and in places around the world. And “We Are Bandits” is an especially exciting way to revisit the process, with the inherent gender, racial and class politics included.

The characters are extreme versions of reality. They include three women of varying backgrounds who play music and pal around in the park (Mary Tuomanen, Aimé Donna Kelly and Isabella Sazak), a workaday woman with grown-up values (Anita Holland), a newcomer who’s eager to fit in (Adam Kerbel), an artist who’s an heiress (Annie Wilson), a woozy, passionate environmentalist and engineer (Kathryn Raines) and a project developer with a supposed vision for the public space (Thomas Choinacky).

When the audience and the park denizens become a part of a much-anticipated community meeting, the developer answers a question about plans for planting trees: “Thinking locally, blah, blah, blah, transformation, blah, blah, blah, vegans and vegetarians…” Something about that sums up the real-life process. “The square,” it is said by the players, “is a mechanism for maintaining the reality of an illusory world.” That, too.

As you walk around watching the day-to-day and night-to-night lives of these people unfold, details that make them fuller characters emerge – you’re likely to have different knowledge than audience members who’ve drifted to another part of the room to witness other scenarios. What’s ultimately impressive about “We Are Bandits” is the way it ties itself together here and there and in its resolution, and the possibility that you may have a different idea about how than others.

From time to time, performers don plastic hoop-like skirts to adopt the identities of historic characters whose names and quotes are written on them. These are all women who stood up against the status quo – Frida Kahlo, Emma Goldman, Susan B. Anthony, Dorothy Day and Gertrude Stein among them – and their thoughts are sprinkled throughout, in the words of each. But Applied Mechanics never lets “We Are Bandits” stick more than a couple of toes into didactic polemics. It jumps unabashedly, instead, into a bubbling theatricality that allows a single story to be told – and understood – in many ways.

_“We Are Bandits,” produced by Applied Mechanics, runs through July 31 at Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St. Admission is free. For dates, times and to register for a performance:   

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