Joe Papp in Five Acts: Tribeca Review

Doc colorfully recounts a trailblazing theatrical career.

The doc directed by Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen focuses on a kid from Brooklyn who hid his immigrant roots until well into his theatrical career.

NEW YORK — An admiring portrait of a transformative figure in the New York theater, Joe Papp in Five Acts shows how much of what this city takes for granted was pioneered by a poor, tough kid from Brooklyn who hid his immigrant roots until well into his career. Stuffed with testimonials from famous collaborators, it will have no trouble attracting and pleasing viewers on public TV.

PHOTOS: Tribeca Film Festival 2012: THR's Red Carpet Interviews

The story starts with the kind of utopian project nobody could have expected to last: After mounting free, outdoor Shakespeare plays for working-class audiences in the East Village (one production drew a New York Times rave despite being rained out after the first act), Papp built a portable stage and brought shows to outer boroughs, determined to replicate the literature-democratizing experience he'd had as a child. But it did work, and when that portable stage broke down in Central Park, an institution was born.

Filmmakers Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen trace Papp's political tendencies from his youth, when he and friends would watch for evictions and then move families back into their apartments after sundown, through his defiance of HUAC in the '50s. It seems only natural, then (if only in retrospect) that he'd be involved with the emergence of counterculture plays like Hair, restage Hamlet with female and black actors in the lead, and foster the careers of playwrights Ntozake Shange and Larry Kramer.

PHOTOS: 12 International Films Debuting at Tribeca Film Festival 2012

Some of those playwrights pay Papp homage here, as do actors including Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and James Earl Jones. Roscoe Lee Browne encapsulates Papp's democratic impulse when he recalls being embraced by the impresario a mere 12 hours after deciding to become an actor.

The interviews, clearly conducted over a long time span, chronicle colorful skirmishes with establishment villains like Robert Moses and Jesse Helms. A section on Papp's more personal feuds, which led to bad blood with collaborators and a few divorces, is underplayed -- not surprising for a film that clearly idolizes its subject.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival, Special Screening
Production Companies: The Papp Project, Thirteen's American Masters, ITVS, WNET
Directors-Producers: Tracie Holder, Karen Thorsen
Executive producers: Susan Lacy, Sally Jo Fifer
Directors of photography: Toshiaki Ozawa, Jem Cohen
Music: Don Byron
Editors: Brad Fuller, Deborah Peretz, Sam Pollard
Sales: Tracie Holder,
No rating, 82 minutes