“The Italian Market Project” play takes over the streets

Bicycle Thief Productions’ debut performance takes audiences members on an interactive adventure throughout one of the oldest districts in South Philly.

Bicycle Thief Productions’ debut performance takes audiences members on an interactive adventure throughout one of the oldest districts in South Philly. “The Italian Market Project,” which runs through July 15 presents a fusion of mystery, history and more, aiming to retain the traditions of the area while shedding light to contemporary ideas. (Grace Maiorano)

Amid the sounds of honking vehicles and the tastes of fried calamari, Philly theater has been plucked from the proscenium stage and pumped into the blocks of Bella Vista.

In their debut creation, Bicycle Thief Productions, an emerging troupe, is harnessing the past, present and future of a signature South Philly site, translating its story into an interactive play occupying the actual neighborhood of its narrative.

“The Italian Market Project,” which runs through July 15 around the nestled area in its title, presents a fusion of mystery, history and actuality, striving to retain the traditions of the district while shedding light to contemporary movement.

“It’s one of the best neighborhoods I’ve lived in,” said co-creator and executive producer Vincent Fumo, a South Philly native. “I really enjoy it here … I wanted to teach (audiences) about history, and let them know the types of people who live here, like different nationalities. And, I wanted them to experience some of stories and shops and flavors.”

Fumo, who started brainstorming the show alongside writer David Jacobi a few years ago, noticed Italian Market visitors, particularly tourists, tend to flock to the cheesesteak moguls, rather than dabble in the delights of family-owned businesses along 9th Street.

And while the interactive show spotlights century-old Italian shops, it concurrently features not only newer eateries, like those reflective of the growing Hispanic population, but also themes of real estate development that could potentially squelch the area.

“It spoke to a changing area — rather than just the Italian experience,” Jacobi said.

Inspired by the atypical Italian tales, Jacobi and Fumo say “Bicycles Thieves,” a 1948 film set in Rome, served as the impetus of the play, as the show itself — quite literally — strays away from stereotypical ideas and even delves into the realities of job sustainability for young people today.

In illustrating these concepts, for the show’s creators, the premise behind this play was not to solely produce a performance but to embody an experience for its theater-goers.

Lifted from the pages of several drafts, “The Italian Market Project” doesn’t even bother breaking a fourth wall, as in fact, there were no walls to break.

“There’s something really amazing about the fact that the audience gets to interact directly with the show,” Fumo said. “You have to interact with the environment that the show is happening in. … You’re working in the street so who knows what will happen?”

With the cityscape serving as its backdrop, the show is designed for eight to 10 people to embark on a scavenger hunt, as clues are scattered throughout the thoroughfares of the market.

Unlike traditional theater, the story is susceptible to the day-to-day life of Philadelphia, as there is no set light or sound design — rather such theatrical staples will depend upon weather or traffic conditions.

“When you’re in a theater, you’re in a controlled space and you don’t have to worry about ambient noises or anyone walking out on stage,” said artistic producer Amanda Jensen. “But, here, you do. So, it’s a completely different beast.”

For both actors and writers, the script is considered as a living piece of paper, leaving room for inevitable changes in its margins, as nearly all 22 scheduled shows will technically be disparate.

The cast says, in navigating the pulsating streets of the Italian Market while simultaneously staying in character, their approach boils down to improv.

“I based (my improv performance) around the character and everyone’s that’s in the play, as well,” said Kishia Nixon, who plays Marie. “And just being open to the Italian Market, because it’s very unpredictable.”

The cast cited several times when pedestrians inadvertently made cameos in the show, as the actors were forced to think on their feet to keep the play on point.

Yet, while this may seem like an especially taxing technique, considering there are no backstage wings to break character, the cast also says it has cultivated its craft.

“It comes with its challenges,” said Adam Howard who plays Andy. “But I think it just comes a little bit more naturally, because of how public this is, because the set is real and the props are real, and everything is happening right of front of you. And, it kind of puts you in the moment a little bit easier.

“(Ordinary theater) is a routine. You get sucked into it. But with this, there’s always an element of surprise.”

Although the show may seem scattered and unscripted, Jacobi says this is the company’s ability to give “the illusion of freedom,” as the show maintains its own crew of stage managers, producers and a director orchestrating during each run.

However, audiences remain unaware of this management since crew members could very easily be mistaken for city dwellers — yet another advantage, they say, to executing this show on the streets of South Philly.

“There’s no boundaries when the stage is outside,” Nixon said. “The Italian Market is a stage. Anywhere can be one.”

Five are performed shows each weekend, including Fridays at 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 12:30 p.m. and 3 .p.m

The show runs through July 15.

For more information, visit http://italianmarketproject.com/