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The 2014 Under the Radar Festival
Here are the links to the shows we're covering. An asterisk * before the title indicates that the review is posted: *Big Mouth By Deirdre Donovan | *Blackout by Deirdre Donovan |*El Año en Que Nací or The Year I Was Born by Tyler Plosia | *I Stole Your Dad by Jacob Horn |*Public Enemy by Kathryn Osenlund | *Rodney King by Deirdre Donovan | * The Record by Deirdre Donovan
Big Mouth. Of all the shows at the festival BigMouth may well roar the loudest. Director-actor Valentijn Dhaenens brings to the boards a fraternity of orators from ancient to post-modern times, spanning 2, 500 years of seminal orations.
Sound stuffy? Not at all! With Dhaenens virtuoso talent, not to mention his sturdy vocal cords, he zigs and zags through the centuries, inhabiting the personas of historical figures who have breathed great meaning and power into language.
Dhaenens brings to life the Grand Inquisitor, Socrates, Patton, Pericles, Mohammed Ali, Malcolm X— and that's only the tip of the rhetorical iceberg here. This is an homage to those famous speakers who forged their language out of velvet and steel. Speaking in a smattering of the world's languages (English, Dutch, French, Latin and German with English subtitles), Dhaenens re-enacts historical moments, intones famous speeches, and reveals the human being within the skin of a legend at each twist and turn.
BigMouth is stuffed with intelligence, rhetorical cunning, and old-fashioned showmanship. Though the purpose of the project is to resurrect great speakers and allow them to have their say again, Dhaenens adds just enough levity to the proceedings to keep it from ever feeling weighed down. Not only does Dhaenens float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee in this show, he amazes with the way he can invest each orator with his own quirky personality
Dhaenens performs nearly all his speeches at a long table, complete with microphones and awash with bright light. Often he unexpectedly leaps up on the table to stress a point or highlight an eloquent phrase. Though many actors boast about their subtle performances, Dhaenens purposefully injects rhetorical tricks to bring his luminaries to life. It's no stretch to say that at pivotal moments he resembles a living exclamation point.
Villains like Osama Bin Laden are included in this speech-fest. You might even find yourself echoing that old cliché typically reserved for Shakespeare's Richard III: He's a villain we love to hate."
As for flaws, it is sometimes difficult to keep up with Dhaenens as he morphs from one iconic speaker to the next. There are also a couple of times in the presentation when it is tough to know where one speech leaves off and the next begins. This is nit-picking, however, at this rich feast of language. Under the auspices of the renowned company SKaGen in Flanders, this show is making a big noise at the festival. [Donovan]
Rodney King. Where does the myth of Rodney King intersect with the real African-American man who was brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers back in 1991? Roger Guenveur Smith, storyteller extraordinaire, scratches beneath the myth of King in a 60-minute riff that gives us a vivid portrait of the man and how he came to national attention. While not for the squeamish, Rodney King is for those who want to see further than the headlines and the hoopla swirling around King in the early 90s.
Smith isn't sugar-coating anything here. He traces the arc of King's life from birth to death. He gives us a solid sense of events and how the media ratcheted things up to the nth degree during the trial, subsequent police acquittal, and (to borrow Smith's apt phrase) "the city in crisis."
To his credit, Smith doesn't become an apologist for King, extolling his virtues or labeling him a hero. Mostly he questions just who in our American culture should be put on a pedestal and whether King qualifies for the honorific status. Instead of donning the hat of judge he just keeps spinning out the facts, details, knee-jerk cultural impressions, and his own perceptive take on King. For most of this solo piece he is right on the money.
An astute reference to King as the first TV reality celebrity (Remember how a neighbor's video of King being beaten by police went viral?) had audience members readily nod in agreement.
Rodney King was workshopped at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles during their 2012/13 season. Favorable notices gave the piece its stage legs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of their Radar Los Angeles International Theater Festival.
Smith is no stranger at the Public. His epic Huey P. Newton Story, Juan and John, Frederick Douglass Now, Iceland, and Christopher Columbus 1992 have all been presented there n recent years. With his long-time collaborator, Marc Anthony Thompson frequently doing his sound design, Smith has acquired a loyal following in New York.
Smith deftly caps his current monologue with an arresting choreographed sequence that mimes King's accidental drowning in his backyard pool on Father's Day, June 17th, 2012. Part history lesson, part cultural seminar, part sermon, you take-away far more than facts from Rodney King but realize why King and his myth still matter today. [Donovan]
Blackout. This is the bold new art piece that choreographer Philippe Saire concocted back in 2011 and now, three years later, brings to the Under the Radar Festival. Lucky New Yorkers that catch this hybrid of dance and fine art!
Saire, a Lausanne-based artist, reworked some material from his Lonesome Cowboy to compose this gritty-textured production. But make no mistake: this work stands on its own theatrical feet. And though clocking in at less than an hour, it can surprise you with more than the dark and its chiaroscuro shadows.
A lot of ink has already been spilled on the dark symbolism tucked into the work. It has been metaphorically compared both to a starry night and Churchill's "black dog." With no horizontal stage built-in for its dancers to dance on, it goes with verticality. Spectators are required to stand on walkways that overhang a 4.80 meters wide cube that calls to mind a lion's den or perhaps a pit. Thus in a reverse of traditional stagecraft, the audience is atop the production, with the dancers (Philippe Chosson, Maelle Desclaux, Jonathan Schatz) on the bottom floor.
For its opening scene, Blackout trips the light fantastic. You see the artists on a roof, dressed in bathing suits and basking in the sunlight. That carefree mood abruptly changes when a deluge of rubber granules, ash-colored and a thousand strong, starts to fall from the flies and covers the floor with substance. With repeated downpours of this ominous substance, the floor turns into a kind of apocalyptic wasteland. The dancers slowly get buried, disappear, and then reappear in this Stygian landscape.
You don't relax, but you do get a serious taste of dance that intersects with installation art. The piece (Saire's 26th project!) is quite a departure for the choreographer. Though some may disparage its despondent ambiance, I found Blackout's honesty invigorating. But be forewarned: This is a show that takes you to the grave and beyond.
Saire's long-time collaborator Stephane Vecchione adds a brass band sound to the movement and gestures, and Sylvie Kleiber and Laurent Junod serve as set and lighting consultants, respectively. Who could ask for anything more contemporary? [Donovan]
The Record. What happens when one group of people watches another? That is the burning question that sparked this visionary new work by the NYC-based company 600 Highwaymen, which has emerged as a bellwether at this seasons Under the Radar Festival. And simple as it sounds, it creates subtle fireworks on stage as 45 human beings of diverse backgrounds and ages assemble to create art.
Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, the company's artistic directors and co-directors of this experimental work, write in the program notes that "our shows are developed using creative methods that range from conventional to peculiar, and change with each new project." They go on on to expatiate about their "obsession" to tap into theater's classical roots: the place, the people, the time." The Record interweaves these strands into a whole, and infuse it with a certain magnitude. You watch waves of actors flow onto the stage, face the audience, perform this, and that movement, before vanishing altogether from sight.
This innovative piece contains the soul of a hermit and the mind of the community. If that sounds like an oxymoron, it is, but it wonderfully imbeds dramatic tension into the 60 minutes. All the performers have been rehearsing individually for the show but have never met or shared the same stage before they show up for the actual performance. No production that I have ever seen has straddled private meditation and public event with such originality. What's more, it gives new definition to the immediacy of theater.
Before pointing out its considerable theatrical strengths, I must toss out this caveat: This work is more likely to appeal to those who like the avant-garde at its razor-sharpest edge. The friend who accompanied me to the show was intrigued for the first twenty minutes or so, as the actors stepped onto the platform stage and became part of the growing tableau. But she She found that watching performers watching the audience, and vice versa, was too static to hold her interest.
As for me, while I can grow impatient with overly-cerebral work, this presentation pulled me in. It seemed to me that all the performers here are witnessing to theater's truth, not its razzle-dazzle or technical virtuosity. Nobody is attempting to upstage anybody else. Each individual is simply allowing art to happen.
R Accompanied by live music (one musician on strings, another on the computer), The Record defies categorization. There are shows in this city that have more pizzazz, but when it comes to intensity, it wins. At the Martinson Theater [Donovan]
I Stole Your Dad
John Hodgman has built a reputation on being a know it all who never quite gets it right. He's known to many as the Daily Show's "Resident Expert," always ready to sound off on areas of his supposed expertise (incidentally, Areas of My Expertise was also the title of the first of several books he filled with less-than-factual information); others might recognize him from an Apple ad campaign where he played the chronically uncool PC opposite Justin Long's hip Mac.
A key part of Hodgman's persona, however, is rarely (if ever) admitting that he might be wrong about anything. Thus, when he begins I Stole Your Dad, a mix between a dramatic monologue and a stand-up comedy routine, by expressing his dismay that he was incorrect about the impending Mayan apocalypse in 2012, it's clear that this isn't the same John Hodgman character we've come to expect. "I wish I could say it's nice to see you," he says, "but it's not. You're not supposed to be here. . . You're supposed to be dead."
Admitting he wasn't quite right about the end of the world initiates a moment of metamorphosis for the actor, who proceeds to shed numerous layers of clothing acquired through professional gigs including the Daily Show and the (tragically under-appreciated) HBO noir comedy Bored To Death. It's a not-so-subtle way to make physically manifest his desire to shed some of the layers of his persona and focus more on his own biography. Soon he stands in jeans and a polo shirt, which he claims is about as close to nude as he ever really gets.
Focusing on his own life and experiences, Hodgman becomes more of a storyteller, addressing topics such as watching Downton Abbey with his family, the miseries of surf shops in Florida, and the challenges of trying to stay relevant with middle age looming. All the component pieces are solid, though the flow of the show as a whole can be a bit choppy at times. One personal anecdote somewhat abruptly transitions into an extended gag about Ayn Rand, which is funny but feels a bit awkwardly tacked on.
The humor of I Stole Your Dad is characteristically cerebral, and while there are highs and lows, Hodgman's presentation is consistently strong. He knows how to make a joke, combining careful comedic timing with delivery that is surprisingly earnest. Some parts work better than others and the show feels a bit longer than it needs to be, but it's nice to see a seasoned performer like Hodgman take advantage of the Under the Radar festival as a chance to try something different, and the results are enjoyable to watch. At the Public Theater, 90 minutes without intermission. [Horn]
El Año en Que Nací (translated in English as The Year I Was Born)
Presented at La Mama this is an experimental piece devoted to nine personal stories of how the reign of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet affected nine separate (and very different) families.
The presentation of historical information is more frequently recited into a microphone on a stand than demonstrated through representational actions by the performers. "Piece" is maybe more appropriate than "play" in referring to El Año en Que Nací, and not only because it takes a contrarian approach to the "show, don't tell" axiom of performance art.
The brainchild of Lola Arias (who directs and, along with the performers, writes), the piece is put on by performers who tell the true stories of their lives — as well as the lives of their parents who are the primary focuses of the piece. The line between fact and fiction is blurred. The places and dates are true, and when the performers say "mi madre" or "mi papi," they aren't lying. But they also adopt representational roles on occasion, pantomiming the stories while simultaneously relaying them orally.
El Año en Que Nací is primarily a theater piece about the quavering political stability in Chile throughout the past several decades. But in its experimental use of actors and their source material. It also challenges the means of storytelling, in theater and elsewhere.
The individual vignettes range from thoroughly captivating to questionable in their inclusion, but on the whole, the piece is not afraid to ask intellectually potent questions about the how valuable the constructs of theater can be in conveying relevant social messages. And despite its wholly nontraditional approach,El Año en Que Nací is a truer bit of theater than many others, because while written documentation may last forever, the sons and daughters of those affected by Pinochet's dictatorship can only take the stage for so long. 120 minutes with no intermission. [Plosia]
JDX - A Public Enemy
New to NYC, but not brand new, JDX - A Public Enemy was created by the Belgian company, tg STAN, in 1993, and it has toured extensively. The company's name, tgSTAN, means S(top) T(thinking) A(about) Names.
In this bare bones concept-based production, created from Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, Dr. Stockman discovers a serious problem with the water that supplies the baths, which are the financial lifeblood of the town. He stubbornly stands against his brother (the mayor) the press, and the whole community. He decries "the lie that pairs the majority with the truth," and he descends from hero to public enemy.
More abstract than flesh and blood "acting" the play is performed in Dutch with English supertitles. A prompter (Stijn Van Opstal) describes scenes and gives stage directions in English. The actors follow some of the stage directions. But if, for instance the text says, "They sit," the actors actually don't. Four remarkable actors, Jolente De Keersmaeker, Sara De Roo, Damiaan De Schrijver, and Frank Vercruyssen play several roles.
It's like watching a foreign film. Viewers must deal with divided attention and reach a compromise between reading the lines and watching the acting - a challenge in a very talky play like this one. The actors, sensitive to the spectators, check on the pace and actually repeat part of a scene for a few late-arriving audience members.
This performance is as much about the interplay of the spoken Dutch and the posted English translations as it is about the story itself. Strangely, for a company that professes a "rigorous commitment to character," in JDX- A Public Enemy the actors appear to be far more committed to their particular performance aesthetic than to the various characters they play. The characters are sketched in, vividly, but still sketched. Much of the actors' and audiences' interest derives from the fact that the translated words are available to the actors, who often glance at the superscript, comment on the process, say a few words in English, and serve up the story with an offhand kind of humor, while including the audience in their repartee. They rather rattle through it, all to entertaining effect.
Ibsen's story of Stockman et al is part old fashioned Agitprop, but it's more about exposing the pitfalls of democracy and the self-interest on all sides than it is about advancing a preferred political point of view. JDX - A Public Enemy, a novel and entertaining presentation, is a lot of fun and well worth seeing. Under the Radar. The Public Theater. 90 minutes, with one 5 minute intermission.[Osenlund]
Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show
Slings & Arrows-the complete set
You don't have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to love all 21 episodes of this hilarious and moving Canadian TV series about a fictional Shakespeare Company