Pierre Rides Again

Thomas MacMIllan PhotoWith the blessing of bike angel “Lala Lallement,” a local theater company is delving into New Haven’s two-wheeled past to help a nervous accountant confront his fear of the velocipede.

The confrontation happens in the latest production by A Broken Umbrella Theatre company, which has made a name for itself in New Haven with site-specific plays that draw from local history.

The production, called “Head Over Wheels,” is a goofy, kid-friendly, bike-themed musical that opens Saturday during Westville’s weekend ArtWalk festival.

The play, like all Broken Umbrella productions, is written by the company and inspired by New Haven events of yesteryear. In this case, the inspirational incident is the first recorded “header” off a bike , in 1865. The historic faceplant was achieved by Frenchman and Ansonian Pierre Lallement, who famously rode his newly invented pedal-bike on the New Haven Green and took out the first American patent on it in April 1866.

According to one historical account, Lallement careened down a hill in what is now Derby one damp day and struck the edge of a culvert. “The positions of rider and vehicle were suddenly reversed, and the rider still wears the scar of that too impulsive embrace of mother earth,” Charles E. Pratt, co-founder of the League of American Wheelmen, wrote in 1883.

The historical facts of the header and the subsequent patent were fed into Broken Umbrella’s all-inclusive group brain-storming and plot-development process, and a 35-minute comedy set in the present day emerged.

During a recent visit to the show’s outdoor set on Blake Street in Westville, director Rachel Alderman described the plot:

The story revolves around a hub formed by two twins, Clint and Flint. Clint owns the town bike shop, Clint’s Sweet Bikes. Every year he puts together the “Pierre Lallement Annual Community Bicycle Ride,” a bit like the annual Rock-To-Rock ride in real-life New Haven.

As the annual ride approaches, Flint, the town accountant, becomes more and more nervous. He’s harboring a terrible secret—he can’t ride a bike. He can balance the books, but not a bicycle. And he’s afraid he’s going to be chosen as the ride’s grand marshal.

Luckily, Lala Lallement—a woman who is part angel, part goddess, and a descendent of Pierre himself—comes to Flint’s aid and helps him to confront his terror.

“She comes and helps Flint find his inner bike spirit,” Alderman said.

Like all Broken Umbrella productions, the show will be staged in an unconventional space. It will be the second show to go up at the company’s new home in the old furnace room of a long-vacant factory. But while the last show was inside the space, “Head Over Wheels” will be just outside.

A Broken Umbrella is in the process of transforming the building’s facade into backdrop for the play. An overhead garage door has been transformed into the entry way to Clint’s Sweet Bikes. Another garage door has been painted with a giant art-deco inspired painting of Lala Lallement, bike goddess.

The stage is surrounded by a proscenium made of spinning bike wheels, unintentionally similar to the facade at the Devil’s Gear bike shop on Orange Street.

Astroturf will be rolled out in the parking lot for kids to sit down, with bleachers placed behind it.

The show will feature original rock music, inspired by the ‘80s. The band will set up on stage left, near the town’s organic pizzeria shop, Scott Slices It Up. Scott delivers pizzas by bike, of course.

The cast of four main characters is rounded out with another bike-rider, a local paper boy. Each character has a distinctive bike specific to his personality, many of which came from the scrapyard belonging to Rachel’s husband Ian Alderman, another one of the company’s principals.

For Ian, the show is a chance to show off his “clowning” talents, which have not been a feature of previous productions, Rachel said. “It’s going to be over the top goofy.”

While the show is intended to share the “inherent joy” of bikes with the audience, it’s already had a similar effect on the cast.

Broken Umbrella members have a variety of levels of bike enthusiasm, from everyday urban riders to bike-path-only pedal-pushers to those who never set foot on a bike, Rachel said. Despite those differences, the company recently took part in the Rock to Rock ride together.

“It was such a great day,” Rachel Alderman said. “That’s the same spirit of the show ... a celebration of community”

“Head Over Wheels” is just the first of two bike-history-themed productions Broken Umbrella has in the works. Next spring, the company will put on a more grown-up show that explores the connections between bikes, corsets, and women’s freedom.

Among New Haven’s many firsts is that is was home to the very first corset factory, Alderman said. Then when the bicycle rolled around, it hastened the development of the “rational dress” movement. The trend was towards more comfortable clothing for women, to allow them to do things like bike-riding. Meanwhile, despite New Haven’s biking pedigree, the city grew to become a center for the manufacturing of the most restrictive of women’s clothing, with nine corset factories in town, Alderman said.

Just how Broken Umbrella will weave those threads into a narrative remains to be worked out. Alderman said the company has a “crazy brainstorming” process that takes ideas “to outer space” before arriving back on earth with a script.

It’s a process designed to allow company members to explore whatever creative desires they have, Alderman said. “We really want to be that dream outlet for people.” Whatever members want to pursue, the message is: “We have a home for you.” That’s how the giant art-deco bike goddess ended up on the outside of the company’s headquarters—one member wanted to do it and the company made it work into the play.

This June, for the first time, A Broken Umbrella is opening up that creative process to the public with a gallery show of work exploring the relationship between bikes and corsets, Aldermen said.

Also coming up, in October, the company will unveil a production commissioned by the New Haven Free Public Library Foundation to commemorate the library’s 125th anniversary. That show will take place in the library’s main branch downtown.

Head over Wheels will be performed on May 12 at noon, 2 and 4 p.m. and May 19 at 2 and 4 p.m. at 446A Blake St. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. And performances are rain or shine. In case of precipitation, A Broken Umbrella has umbrellas—non-broken ones—to hand out to the audience.

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