Liz Barkan’s one-woman bike-themed off-off-Broadway musical is not autobiographical. Well, OK, it kind of is. The part about owning a bike shop is true. The part about being a bike messenger is true. The part about being Jewish is true. Let’s go with semi-autobiographical, even though Barkan insists, “None of the play is autobiographical.”
The show is “Bike Shop,” and it’s about—you guessed it—a bike shop. Barkan plays Bobby, a bike messenger grappling with the heavy weight of having accidentally murdered a young girl while delivering a package. After the accident, Bobby holes up in her family-run bike shop, opened by her Irish immigrant grandmother back in 1936. Characters—all played by Barkan—file in and out of the store: Bobby’s father, a Vietnam vet; her uncle, a self-proclaimed Rabbi; and a mysterious man, a fellow messenger who helps Bobby get back on her bike.
Barkan attended the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art, and just after graduating, landed a job as a bike messenger in Manhattan for Elite Couriers – “the caviar of the bike messenger world,” Barkan says. She carried everything from giant fish to cinderblocks to chicken noodle soup. Was it like that god-awful white-knuckle Joseph Gordon-Levitt flick, Premium Rush? “No,” Barkan says. “I’m from the Quicksilver time. I was Kevin Bacon.”
By the time Barkan was 21, she had been a bike messenger for three years and, having picked up racing as well, had become a member of the Century Road Club. Suffering from burnout, she and a friend decided to open a bike shop in Fort Greene in 1990. They gradually stocked more and more bikes until they had a profiting business. But keep in mind that this was Fort Greene in 1990—Barkan says they got held up on a regular basis. “Kids would come in with bats,” she says. “It was bad. I’d be running down the street screaming like a crazy lady with a bat running after them. ‘You little bastards! Get back here!’”
She and her partner decided to liquidate the business before something really bad happened. After turns as an aerobics instructor, then a spinning teacher, Barkan began writing her one-woman play. “The reason I did it,” she explains, “was because people would ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’ And I’d say, ‘I teach fitness, but I used to be a bike racer, and before that I owned a bike shop, and before that I was a bike messenger. People would say, ‘Wow, you should do a show about that!’ After five or ten times hearing that, I thought maybe I would.”
A friend of Barkan’s, Crystal Field, was (and still is) the Artistic Director at Theater for the New City in the East Village. When Field caught wind that Barkan was working on a play, Field approached her and offered to produce it, on one very specific condition: it had to be a musical. Barkan says, “Crystal told me, ‘I hate one-person shows, but I like you, and you have a great voice.’ That was enough.”
“Bike Shop” begins its two-week residency at Theater for the New City on June 20. Show-goers are encouraged to ride their bikes to the show, then park them on stage to be part of the set. Throughout the show, Barkan, backed by a three-piece band, tinkers with bikes while she performs. “The bikes are the star,” she says. “I’m just one of the props on stage.”