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Under the Radar Festival 2019
By Jacob Horn
The 11-day Under the Radar Festival is back for its 15th year, featuring new work from across the U.S. and around the world. The Festival—which includes full theatrical pieces, concerts, developmental presentations, and other events—runs January 3-13, 2019, at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street) and partner venues. CurtainUp sampled two of this year's twenty-one participating acts: Manual Cinema's Frankenstein and New Saloon's Minor Character. For a complete listing of performances and events, check out the festival website: www.undertheradarfestival.com.
Chicago-based Manual Cinema uses cleverly conceived puppetry, innovative cinematic effects, and live musical accompaniment to create a real time "film," projected above the stage, weaving together Mary Shelley's famous Gothic horror novel with her own biography. Even those familiar with the book itself might be surprised to learn of the genesis of the story, which was Shelly's winning entry in a ghost story–writing contest with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron.
Dealing with an original text as well trodden as Frankenstein, Manual Cinema's main achievement is in the arresting visuals and ingenious ways of executing them live. (The concept is credited to Drew Dir, who then devised the piece along with Sarah Fornace and Julia VanArsdale Miller.) Across several different chapters, the style and associated techniques shift so that the production keeps some tricks up its sleeve well into the performance.
The nearly 100-minute run time feels a bit long, and some sections of the storytelling are looser than others. There are occasional overindulgences, particularly the many hammed up reaction shots of performers emoting into the camera, silent movie–style.
But if ever your attention to the story starts to wane, these are ideal moments to take in the technical side of Manual Cinema's operation. Watching the execution often proves as satisfying as the product, as puppeteers manipulate overhead projectors and musicians float through a sea of instruments, with an especially significant array of percussion instruments and implements that fits right in with the production's overall steampunk aesthetic. This is also to say nothing of all the work being done on the back end, as the live video and sound effects are mixed by Shelby Glasgow (January 3–7) and Kyle Vegter (January 10–12).
In the end, the artistry is the bread and butter of this Frankenstein. Smartly designed and impressively rendered with a striking mix of lo-fi and modern approaches, Manual Cinema's Under the Radar performance breathes new life into a classic tale.
New Saloon's Minor Character mashes up six different translations of Anton Checkhov's Uncle Vanya into a dizzying circus of Russian drama. The effect is amorphous: sometimes humorous, other times compounding the tragedy of the play, and moving between something kaleidoscopically illuminating and schizophrenically hectic. Nearly every character is played by up to six multiple actors at one time, though usually the rule of threes applies.
I came to Minor Character mostly unfamiliar with the original play, but was interested in the interactions between vastly differing translations, made at different times and in varying cultural contexts by a range of authors. One of the earlier and more conservative translations is from 1916. A less traditional take is provided by Google Translate.
In retrospect, though, a familiarity with Chekhov's work would have been an asset, it isn't outright vital. Russian literature tends toward the complex; like the prologue to Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 jokes, "everyone's got nine different names... gonna have to study up a little bit if you want to keep with the plot." Perhaps nobody in Vanya has quite that many monikers, but keeping up is still tricky when identities overlap and fragment so intensely.
A full understanding of the narrative would also help a viewer sort through the barrage of language that can result when dialogue from several translations is recited in tandem. It can be interesting to see how close some translations are, and to consider the nuance of language where differences do occur, but most of those differences get swallowed up by the sheer noise of all the talking. It tends to be more edifying when the same line recited several times in succession, as much in response to itself as to the statement that preceded it.
The execution is strong: director Morgan Green choreographs the placement of each line with precision, and the performers (many of whom previously appeared in Minor Character's INCOMING! series workshop during 2017's Under the Radar) ably maintain an aerobic pace. Milo Cramer and Caitlin Morris show particularly strong comedic chops (Cramer also produced some of the show's translations), while a sequence between Morris and Madeline Wise late in the show is one of the more dramatically satisfying portions.
It turns out that mashing up all these translations, which aren't always as different as one might expect, doesn't really offer deep linguistic epiphanies. But Minor Character's frenetic take on Uncle Vanya is in and of itself a sort of new translation, introducing a sense of noise and distortion that drags Chekhov—perhaps not kicking, but certainly screaming—into the thick of the information era.
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By Manual Cinema
Adapted from the novel by Mary Shelley
Concept by Drew Dir
Devised by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, and Julia VanArsdale Miller
Original music composed by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman
Puppeteers: Sarah Fornace (Victor Frankenstein, Mary Shelley), Julia VanArsdale Miller (The Creature, Elizabeth Frankenstein), Leah Casey (Caroline Frankenstein, Percy Shelley, Vocals), Sara Sawicki (Alphonse Frankenstein, Lord Byron), and Myra Su (Ensemble; played by Lizi Breit January 5 and 6)
Musicians: Zachary Good (clarinets and aux percussion), Deidre Huckabay (flutes, aux percussion, piano), Lia Kohl (cello, aux percussion, vocals), and Peter Ferry (percussion)
Storyboarder: Drew Dir
Puppet Designer: Drew Dir and Lizi Breit
Video and Set Designer: Davonte Johnson
Costume Designer: Mieka van der Ploeg
Lighting Designer: Claire Chrzan
Sound Designer: Ben Kauffman and Kyle Vegter
Sound Engineer: Mike Usrey
Stage Manager: Shelby Glasgow
Video Mixing and Live Sound Effects: Shelby Glasgow (January 3–7) and Kyle Vegter (January 10–12)
Running Time: 97 minutes with no intermission
The Public Theater, LuEsther Hall, 425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place)
Created by New Saloon
Directed by Morgan Green
Text: Anton Chekhov
Translations: Marian Fell, Laurence Senelick, Paul Schmidt, Carol Rocamora, Milo Cramer, and Google Translate
Featuring: Milo Cramer, Ron Domingo, Rona Figueroa, Fernando Gonzalez, David Greenspan, LaToya Lewis, Caitlin Morris, and Madeline Wise
Dramaturg: Elliot B. Quick
Composer: Deepali Gupta
Producer: Caroline Gart
Stage Manager: Katherine Shelton
Music Director: Robert Frost
Scenic Designer: Kristen Robinson
Costume Designer: Alice Tavener
Lighting Designer: Masha Tsimring
Sound Designer: M. Florian Staab
Production Manager: Will Jennings
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission
The Public Theater, Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place)
Full price tickets for all festival shows are $30; (212) 967-7555, www.publictheater.org, or in person at the theater.
Festival runs 1/3/2019&ndash1/13/2019
Check www.undertheradarfestival.com for a full schedule of performances and events.
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 1/4/2019 performance of Minor Character and 1/5/2019, 6:30 pm performance of Frankenstein
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