So it's festival season, and you've only managed to get one venue wrong? Which led to a madcap dash across town? Which you are counting as “exercise” on your 2016 Goals Checklist? Then you're winning! Or rather, let's say you're not alone. The Public's Under the Radar festival does, bless it, mostly happen under one roof—and for that, our easily baffled sense-of-place is very grateful.
In the festival's first weekend, the best and buzziest offering was (FIVE STARS) Germinal, a gentle, existential work from Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort, a French/Belgian team with a blossoming international reputation. The exquisitely sweet piece plays with first principles, building its universe from scratch, letting its four performers find out what the rest of us take for granted.
In a seemingly featureless black wooden box, light slowly dawns; peering through the gloom, we eventually make out four puzzled people, sitting cross-legged on the ground like children, operating rudimentary light boards. The quartet discovers space, then thought (via projected supertitles), speech, categorization of objects and concepts, music, purpose, religion, physics, the rejection of religion, the awareness of death and—after a "user manual" appears—the joy of computer menus. Childlike wonder and the discovery of ontological paradigms are wound together; the quartet's unflappable curiosity makes the comedy lovely and silly; the evening winds up being Beckettian and adorable at the same time. But Germinal is also a serious work, and a useful one. Goerger and Defoort's world-within-a-world asserts that the actions of thinking, apprehending and analyzing are themselves weapons against the dark. It's hope, back in Pandora's (black) box.
There's more anger in (FOUR STARS) The Institute of Memory (TIMe), creator-director-designer Lars Jan's complicated, occasionally overstuffed biographical sketch of his mysterious father, Henryk. Since his Polish father told him very little about himself (there were flirtations with multiple intelligence agencies) Jan and his Early Morning Opera company turn the patriarch into a kind of “man who wasn't there” cabaret act. For the simple set, Jan creates a white neon outline, a ghost groundplan that floats and pivots through the air; in the black space underneath it, Jan positions his own avatar (Sonny Valicenti) and the avatar's double (Andrew Schneider). The two men, wearing bright white suits, narrate what's known of Jan's father's life, including verbatim transcripts of wiretaps, Jan's often painful memories and the medical records left unwillingly behind. It's a clever intertwining of absurdist physical theater, documentary drama and confessional memory play—three forms you'd think would be at loggerheads, but that mesh and combine into something surprisingly strong.
A less serious object (by design) is (THREE STARS) The Art of Luv (Part 1): Elliot by the Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble, Sean McElroy and Tei Blow's cheerfully weird performance art duo. Cultish initiates in white robes give us pillows; there's a post-yoga atmosphere of draped fabric and soothing music; the performers sit like idols with their faces painted solidly gold. The karaoke consists of quasi-alien lip-synching along to YouTube clips, which becomes a sort of futuristic hieroglyphics. In Luv, the videos include the mass killer Elliot Rodger's terrifying complaints about women alternating with cringe-inducing pickup seminars, but the subject matter seems too serious for its treatment. Afterwords, I heard someone expressing delight at the spa-like atmosphere. If that's an audience's take-away from a work about a homicidal misogynist, it may be the irony—not the gold—that's painted on a bit too thick.