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January theater festivals roundup: Coil edition

By Helen Shaw

If you've gotten a bit tuckered out from racing all over the city to get to the Coil Festival's offerings (especially, say, during the blizzard), take heart. This is the last time Coil will be so dispersed, since after much waiting, P.S. 122 will reopen this year. This is also, though, the final festival under the aegis of the departing Vallejo Gantner. It's another end of an era.

RECOMMENDED: January theater festivals guide

How will Coil change under P.S.'s incoming artistic director Jenny Schlenzka—only the third artistic director in P.S.'s history? If we can judge by her programming at MOMA PS1, Schlenzka curates with a certain slinky, art-world punkiness—certainly a major change from Gantner's rowdy, welcome-to-the-circus exuberance. This may therefore be your last chance to see a Coil made out of all the things Gantner loves most: Australians, athletic dance and a cheerfully participatory type of performance art. In the first tranche of Coil programming, there was a divide between the brief, easy-to-like works and ones that demanded serious attention and patience—in its first weekend, there wasn't really an in-between setting.

On the extra-slight side stands Yehuda Duenyas's virtual reality experience CVRTAIN (pictured above), which only lasts as long as it takes you to put on a VR helmet, step into the “spotlight” and bow to a computer-generated audience as they riotously applaud.It's like doing a shot of affirmation—but it needs something more substantial as a chaser. (10 mins. Through Jan 15) Another piece that dissolves in the mind almost as it happens is the immensely sweet Blind Cinema, in which an audience sits blindfolded in front of a film while children whisper descriptions (“Ok, so he's searching and he finds a house, no it's a tree, no it's a house”) through tubes reaching to each audience member's ear. The filmmaker/creator Britt Hatzius has made a delicious experience that moves immediately into dreamscape—the images we hear about are fairytale ones (a boy rides an egg among the stars, I think?), and so the listener is plunged into a sleeping-waking state that defeats any sense of time. (40 mins. Through Jan 12)

Nearly as hypnotic is the dance piece MEETING by Australians Antony Hamilton and Alisdair Macindoe, two joes in baggy t-shirts who work in a dreamy, super-synchronized version of pop-and-lock breakdancing. Surrounding the pair as they jerk and flow is Macindoe's percussion “machine”—a ring of simple robots, dozens of tiny boxes with stick “arms” that tap on the ground. The human movement has its lovely moments, but your eyes are constantly to the men's little mechanical partners, rat-a-tat-tatting solemnly away. (50 mins. Closed.)

We make our own toys in Worktable, Kate McIntosh's participatory installation at the Invisible Dog. When we arrive, we're invited to destroy an object, such as a clock or a deck of cards; then we're asked to assemble another such shattered thing using basic art-room supplies. The results were often fine sculptures in their own right—a ceramic dog with his head taped on backwards could have sold at Gagosian—and the piece's pleasures take you back to a simpler, glue-stickier time. (45 mins or, in my case, 75 mins, and only because they dragged me away. Closed.)

The two most mentally taxing pieces were also the most rewarding, though antsy festival audiences tended to rustle (or in one case melt down) when things got long. Pavel Zustiak's gorgeous Custodians of Beauty was a profound consideration of the elements of movement: In a sequence of shadow-box acts, we were allowed to contemplate reflection (a trio moves against a grey wall, making symmetries like Rorschach blots); curve (naked spines look like shells rolling across a beach); line (the three change into rehearsal clothes for vectoring precision); and energy (just as our attention flagged, the bass-line got frisky and the trio started bopping). Performers Nicholas Bruder, Justin Morrison and Emma Judkins are paragons. All three are grave and priestly, and the piece's sense of reverence comes from the way they manifest deep calm while spending immense physical resources on our behalf. (1hr 30mins. No intermission. Closed.)

And finally, if we measure success by “How long does it take to get a show out of your head,” the unparalleled splash of festival season so far is Forced Entertainment's torture-device-cum-farce Real Magic. Described, it sounds maddening—three people do a mind-reading bit (“Is the word 'money,' Clare? No? Guess again!”) and fail at it, in exactly the same pattern, for an hour and a half. Some audience members broke under the strain. Certainly the mind started doing weird things—I managed to get all the way to the bargaining stage of grief. One just couldn't believe that this time Clare wouldn't guess "sausage"; she was staring at a sign reading SAUSAGE. But no, somehow the pattern, the rising and dashing of hopes, the mechanical music—all functioned long after sense was gone. It was bravura and ridiculous, aggressive and sly, all at once, and its terrier-tenacity taught me more about pleasure works than a thousand pretty shows. (1hr 25 mins. No intermission. Closed.)


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