The news out of Under the Radar's first few days is rather like recent Hollywood box-office numbers: In troubled times, we turn to nostalgia and escape. None of the shows I saw were exactly Finding Dory, but much on display at the Public Theater is un-provocative and meant to comfort. Here was experimental theater in its “dear innocent” guise; this was certainly the first UTR I've been to where you actually could have brought your kids. (The festival's later days bristle with international offerings, including the in-exile Belarus Free Theater, so the snugglesome mood will shift next week.)
RECOMMENDED: January theater festivals guide
Speaking of children, the 600 Highwaymen participatory work The Fever was determined to make each of us feel like one again. Sitting in a big rectangle around a bright red floor, we imitated directors Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone as they moved their hands in little waves. Seated alongside us, they would then quietly prompt random theatergoer to stand or raise a hand, so the directors could illustrate their scene of a neighborhood party. “Doesn't Mary Anne look pretty tonight?” Browde would ask, as we contemplated some bearded dude standing before his chair. Browde and Silverstone are interested in citizen-performance: they're known for their intergenerational amateur ensembles, and here—in a savvy intensification—they turn almost completely to the audience for their casting needs. Formally, it's a beautiful inversion, but for me the piece itself had a claustrophobically sweet aspect. Browde and Silverstone deserve hearty applause for their creative restlessness within the new form they're carving out: while being clearly of the same genre, The Fever is hugely different from their all-movement The Record or their staggering Death of a Salesman. If here things seem a touch too gentle and the writing a bit too clichéd (“This is the end. Or maybe a kind of beginning?” an audience member reads from cue cards), at least the iconoclastic approach is radical. (75 mins. Through January 15)
Operating at maximum cute were the folk-rock duo The Bengsons, who perform their concert-narrative work Hundred Days. Surrounded by their band, standing underneath 50 twinkling light bulbs, the married couple Shaun and Abigail Bengson tell us the story of their three-week courtship. At first, it goes well—an Astoria idyll. But since childhood, Abigail has dreamt that her beloved will one day be given those titular 100 days to live. She decides it's a prophecy, so she freaks out. Now, having a bad dream is not conflict; it's not even trouble. If you start digging for the events underneath the huge, heartbreaking songs, you realize that Abigail's imagined peril means she was 1) preoccupied on a road trip and 2) subsequently inconsiderate. Oh no? These hiccups are treated as high opera. The Lumineers-esque music is wonderful, though, whether joyful or stormy, and it's performed with extraordinary vigor by a stellar ensemble including accordion, cello, keyboard and drums. I'd say, when it comes to The Bengsons, never, never miss a concert. But if they want to tell you how they met? Good time to fade towards the bar. (90 mins. Through January 15)
In two offerings, the escapist urge entailed stepping directly into a retro-styled film: three-dimensional actors letting two dimensions translate them away. In Saori Tsukada and Nikki Appino's multimedia Club Diamond, Tsukada appears physically in suit-and-mustache as a Benshi, our silent-film narrator. Behind her, black-and-white fantasies of her own immigration story play out—a clever, shadowy cinematography placing the filmed Tsukada in a funhouse Manhattan. The idea of the '20s-era Benshi speaking untranslated Japanese and operating as our only connection to the noir onscreen is interesting, but ultimately there's actually very little to Tsukada's examination of herself. The piece resets halfway through and transmits the same story again, but its thinness can't sustain a retelling. (60 mins. Through January 9)
More excitingly, the Manual Cinema folk from Chicago (they presented Ada/Ava here last year) work their lo-fi shadow-puppet magic with Lula Del Ray, another of their exquisite live-created films. They've refined their techniques to an astonishing edge: Using three overhead projectors, a three-piece band, lots of cut-outs, and two actors with false-silhouettes taped to their faces, the team can achieve any cinematic effect you can imagine. They seem to dream mainly of the middle of last century, so Lula is a lonesome teenager obsessed with the moon landing and a country-western duo, who runs away to the Big City for a strange kind of Girl's Own Adventure. There's less risk in Lula than there was in Ada, and we drift along in it rather than being swept violently downriver as we were in the other work. For sheer craft, though, you'll find nothing more lovingly made. (75 mins. Through January 14)
The exception to all this niceness was the very naughty Erin Markey: Boner Killer, another of that explosive talent's queergasm cabarets, which played one day only at Joe's Pub. Theoretically the show's concept was that Markey had gathered us to explain her funeral wishes, but we were soon out of the comfortable realm of “this show has a concept” and into a landscape of rapid-fire weirdness. Markey performs her songs with mic-eating ferocity; she has a nicely sadistic relationship to her audiences (she made Pubgoers stuff a baby-doll's crotch with money); and she reveals private—or invented?—biographical details with such bizarro regality (“And that's when I decided to become a Craigslist whore”) that we're left stunned in her wake. The shaggy-dog tale effect can wear long after the piece's nearly two hours, but if you're not exhausted, disoriented and a little sticky walking out of one of Markey's shows—you're probably watching it wrong.