Under the Radar Festival: The Public Theater

16 01 2013

The 2013 Under the Radar Festival, tracking dynamic new theater from around the world, is bringing an electrifying hustle and bustle to the Public Theater from January 9 – 20. Theatergoers catch up with friends and grab a quick jolt of caffeine between a veritable smorgasbord of sold out events. After an exhilarating day of new works from companies based in New York City, Iran, Australia, and beyond, the Festival Lounge is the perfect setting for drinks, dancing, and discussion. After all, the conversation surrounding this festival is a performance unto itself.

I spent Saturday, January 13 seeing five shows at Under the Radar, including several of this year’s top picks and critical darlings.

Arguendo (Work in Progress)

While not open for review, Arguendo is worth mentioning as it marks a provocative new venture for NYC-based Elevator Repair Service, best known for their theatricalizations of “nontheatrical” novels (Gatz, The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928) and The Sun Also Rises (The Select)). Arguendo tackles the 1991 First Amendment case of Barnes v. Glen Theatre, in which the U.S. Supreme Court debates whether nude dancing is an artistic expression or a violation of the public indecency ordinance. The play presents the kinky oral argument verbatim, interspliced with a few entertaining interviews with go-go dancers who defend their right to perform “sensuality” in the nude rather than in a G-string and pasties. With a research-based rigor reminiscent of The Civilians, Arguendo questions the legibility of the body, whether dance is a communicative art and the specific message it communicates, and the boundaries between high and low culture. Director John Collins’ choreography of the bodies in space and smart use of projections plays with our enmeshment in language and the legal system, as well as our ability to shift and shape that system.

Hollow Roots

Is it possible for a person of color to have a “neutral narrative”: a story untainted by race or gender, disentangled from the ghosts of the past, unaffected by theory and –isms? Is it possible for a person of color to have hollow roots, and if so, is an empty heritage even desirable? The subject matter of this solo show may be well trodden, but the performance escapes a trap of self-indulgent personal history by emerging from a vital collaboration of three women of color: writer Christina Anderson, director Lileana Blain-Cruz, and performer April Matthis. The play sends shockwaves of recognition across the audience as Matthis – a paralegal with a passion for playing cello – recounts her quest for a “neutral narrative” in our purportedly post-racial world. Although Matthis remains seated for the duration of the performance, the play rarely feels static; Anderson’s writing is poetic and incisive, dipping into childhood memories and elaborating every sensation of the present moment. Matthis traces her circuitous journey on the palm of her hand: from a cozy family dining restaurant to the rooftop of a swanky party, from the Q13 bus to the concert hall. The settings are enhanced by simple shifts in lighting (Solomon Weisbard) and an evocative soundscape (Ken Goodwin). As Matthis slips into sensuous musical spells, she invokes the audience to their own search for identity.

2 Dimensional Life of Her

The virtuosic Fleur Elise Noble (performer, director, and set designer) constructs a world of artistic possibilities in 2 Dimensional Life of Her. Across a series of flat surfaces – the shadow of a woman standing atop a chair, large panels spanning the back of the theater and stage right, sheets and signs and crumpled papers that pop in and out of the scene – she projects an array of animated imagery. The projection of a female artist (Noble herself), who actually looks more like a housekeeper than an artist in her dress and turban, scrubs away at the surfaces to reveal an array of characters and landscapes: cartoonish figures, puppets, realist films. Across a day of working in the studio, the artist’s genre-crossing creations spring to life – with the significant help of Jeremy Neideck’s surround soundscape – and begin to overtake her artistic vision. Can she reassert directorial control?

2 Dimensional Life of Her is easy on the eyes, but rough on the back; this 40 minute art installation has its audience perched upon stairs rather than in traditional seats. A more interesting choice may have been to have the audience interact with the performance and take in its various 2 dimensional surfaces in a more 3 dimensional way, wandering the space as an art exhibit rather than sitting in a traditional theatrical performance. After all, 2 Dimensional Life of Her works in dreamscapes and fluidity of meaning; the audience may have benefited from some flexibility in their own positioning.

C’est du Chinois

The French expression “C’est du Chinois” means “It’s all Greek to me” – or, literally translated, “It’s Chinese.” The phrase is typically flippant and dismissive of cultural differences, marking a refusal to engage a linguistic barrier. Yet the play C’est du Chinois, conceptualized and directed by Edit Kaldor, creates a rather astounding moment of cross-cultural understanding.

The Yao and Lu families (played by Nucheng Lu, Siping Yao, Aaron Chun Fai Wan, Lei Wang, and Qifeng Shang) unload overstuffed bags of random items on an empty stage: coffee, chocolate, maps, a rice cooker, a baby doll. With eager grins and overenthusiastic gestures, these families from Shanghai offer the audience a fun and interactive hour-long Mandarin lesson. An actor holds up an object, says the word in Mandarin, blows a whistle – and the audience repeats. Hen hao! (Very good!)

New York, kung fu, father, mother, love, tears. Through an accumulated array of objects and gestures, the Yao and Lu families engage their audience in a foreign language tutorial that never uses English and rarely drags; the characters’ onstage quips and quibbles with one another are often as entertaining as the lesson itself. Vocabulary gradually builds so that the actors can piece together simple sentences and share a story about the challenging immigrant experience in the United States.

Most effectively, C’est du Chinois offers a visceral understanding of the language barrier for immigrants. Despite the friendly Mandarin lesson leading up to the tale, the (English-speaking) audience’s understanding of the families’ story is always fragmentary. It is precisely the confusion and even occasional frustration of the language gap that leads us to genuine empathy by the play’s end, not to mention the desire to continue learning beyond our own borders.

Ganesh versus the Third Reich

The concept for Ganesh versus the Third Reich is staggering: the Indian god Ganesh travels through Nazi Germany to confront Adolf Hitler and reclaim the ancient Hindu symbol of the swastika.

This fantastical imagined history confronts the shifting meaning of signs and questions of cultural appropriation, particularly through a metatheatrical layer about the theater company that decides to stage this contentious story. As the director (portrayed by Luke Ryan) and actors (Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price, and Brian Tilley) delve into the play, the ensemble begins to question the representations they are performing on stage. Can a non-Jew portray concentration camp refugee, for instance? Who would dare tackle the hated role of Hitler? How would a hypothetical audience respond to representations of a culture and religion not their own? Is this story is even theirs to tell?

This complexly layered piece would be remarkable enough, but add to this the fact that Back to Back Theatre is an Australian ensemble of actors with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities are often unrepresented or misrepresented on stage and in the media – perceived to be freaks of nature and “degenerative” humans, as Dr. Mengele suggests in the play-within-the-play. Just as the elephant-headed lord of obstacles Ganesh aims to reclaim a Hindu symbol, then, Back to Back Theatre seeks to reclaim the representation of disability on stage.

The metatheatrical layer of Ganesh versus the Third Reich may be full of heavy-handed questions, but the play within the play complicates the audience’s notions of disability with the sheer force of performance and theatricality. I actually wish Ganesh had lingered longer in the play within a play, where the actors do not play “actors with disabilities,” but assume powerful roles such as the booming god Ganesh, the Fuhrer, and other positions that are not defined by disability. Director and designer Bruce Gladwin transports the audience to a different world in these moments; the actors draw layers of plastic curtains across the stage to set the scene, and hazy lighting and sharp sound design amplify the talents of this troupe of players.

Always self-aware in its theatricality, Ganesh versus the Third Reich raises a host of unanswerable questions about cultural representations that continue to haunt me beyond the theater. This review only begins to scratch the surface of this smart theatrical work and the necessary political conversations that Back to Back has begun.

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