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How to navigate the blizzard of downtown experimental festivals

How to navigate the blizzard of downtown experimental festivals
Photograph: Allison Michael Orenstein
A Ride on the Irish Cream

January can often seem a fallow period: Broadway box office sales sag and tourism slows to a trickle. Downtown, though, experimental festivals bloom. Why? The Association of Performing Arts Presenters holds its conference this month, and everybody wants to show their wares, hoping to be invited to tour. These three weeks, we rub elbows with curators from around the globe, taking a crash-course in thorny, hybrid work and front-loading our year of theatergoing with the cutting-edge. Wondering where to scout for thrills? Here’s our hand-picked guide to the flurry of fests.

1. Under the Radar
This behemoth at the Public Theater is the biggest and oldest. Its spectacular international offerings include the deft auteur Guillermo Calderón’s Escuela, buzzy French-Belgian devised piece Germinal and Japanese normcore genius Toshiki Okada’s God Bless Baseball. This is also your chance to see much vaunted New York–based 600 Highwaymen and the unmissable duo DarkMatter, reprising their queer apocalypse work #ItGetsBitter. Through Jan 17.

2. The Exponential Festival
Brooklyn finally gets its own fest with this new one, in venues all over the borough. The works constitute the best of BK, so if you missed Title:Point’s horror-comedy Biter (Every Time I Turn Around), here’s your shot. The big news is the return of Jessica Jelliffe and Jason Craig, the duo behind Banana Bag & Bodice. Having been out of New York for too many seasons, they bring LongYarn to the Bushwick Starr; this inclusion raises the fest to a higher power. Jan 13–Jan 30.

3. COIL
This is the last COIL before P.S. 122 regains its East Village home, so events will be all over the city. The fest skews political (including Chris Thorpe’s solo about extremism, Confirmation) and musical, with sound works by Ranters Theatre, Samita Sinha and Annie Dorsen. The best bet is the remount of David Neumann’s ravishing, hilarious I Understand Everything Better, though we’re also curious about new works by artists we know better as performers: Frank Boyd (The Holler Sessions) and Kaneza Schaal (GO FORTH). Through Jan 17.

4. American Realness
The Abrons Arts Center–based Realness always pushes our ideas of performance forward, usually by means of avant-queer and dance-theater works. This year Keith Hennessey, Jack Ferver and Yvonne Meier join the roster, but the marquee item is gonzo neocabaret star Erin Markey’s musical comedy A Ride on the Irish Cream, in which the great Becca Blackwell (pictured above) plays Markey’s lover-cum-horse. We’ve been dreaming of this one for ages; at last, it is real. Through Jan 17.

5. Prototype
The opera festival returns for a fourth season that ranges across venues, genres and boroughs. If you didn’t see David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s bleak Dog Days a few years ago in Montclair, New Jersey, you’ll get a chance to catch it in New York, finally. For those who prefer things a little less post-apocalyptic, check out Sága, a multimedia installation by Belgian band Dez Mona that moves through ancient Norse forms to find a way of expressing modernity. Through Jan 17.

6. Special Effects
Contemporary Performance Network’s microfest lasts only three days, but despite such limits, the lineup looks smartly provocative and sharply relevant. This year there’s a documentary participation piece about Steubenville, Ohio, Renegade Performance Group’s consideration of graffiti called The Inscription Project and Angela Washko’s Tightrope Routines, in which the writer talks to a real “pickup artist.” Jan 15–Jan 17.

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