January theater festival reviews 2018, Part I

Written by
Helen Shaw
Under the Radar: Rock Critic
Photograph: Courtesy Craig SchwartzUnder the Radar: Rock Critic

Week one of the January performapalooza has been good to us. With the weather in the subzero range, every indoor performance seemed like a lovely warm cozy gift, since the alternative was essentially death. But how were the pieces themselves? After a weekend at Under the Radar and a bit of time at Prototype, here’s my first dispatch.

The one unmissable show I’ve seen so far was Acquanetta, the sublime horror-opera that opened the Prototype Festival. Mounted at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center (on the former site of St. Ann’s Warehouse), Acquanetta is composer Michael Gordon and librettist Deborah Artman’s trippy exploded-view treatment of a single scene from the 1943 B-movie Captive Wild Woman. The eponymous starlet Acquanetta (real name: Mildred Davenport) became the exotic dish du jour in Hollywood in the early '40s, then quickly walked away. What, the opera asks, was she thinking? Director Daniel Fish turns this 2005 stream-of-consciousness piece into an extraordinary nightmare, with massive-scale cinematic revelations unfolding out of a seemingly empty space. The show begins with an extreme close up on Acquanetta (the transfixing Mikaela Bennett), her giant eye flinching and staring from a huge screen. While things gets progressively mind-bending from there, you’ll find you can’t escape her 12-foot gaze—not after the camera pulls back, not later that night, not the next day. The other piece I’ve seen so far at Prototype, Elle Kunnos de Voss and Mikael Karlsson’s The Echo Drift, is less successful: a by-the-numbers monodrama in which an insane inmate sings to a moth. Let that one flutter on without you.

The Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival is leaning heavily into one-person shows this year, possibly because the festival's marquee items are enormous that the rest of the schedule has to compensate for them. While everyone else was boggling at Toshi Reagon’s titanic Parable of the Sower (no reviewers have been allowed so far), I was seeing a series of more modest solo pieces elsewhere in the Public’s warren.

The loveliest of these is the meditative Margarete, in which the Polish artist Janek Turkowski takes a deep dive into old 8mm films—a cache of amateur home movies he found at a German flea market. He sits on a slightly battered crocheted carpet, serves us tea and cues them up for us. There’s nothing interesting about the little sequences at all, which makes them merely beautiful: studies of seascapes and “days out,” a decaying black-and-white image of a majestic Afghan hound, a lady with white hair carrying two purses. The mildest possible detective story ensues, with some easy googling and a visit to a nursing home revealing all. Turkowski’s is attempting to make a connection, but what he really reveals is how distant we all are from one another. We look at a woman’s whole life as though we were archaeologists brushing dirt off a stone axe. Ah, we think, So someone lived this way. And then we move on.

Margarete exudes an almost monkish air of quiet contemplation, but just upstairs—and sometimes audible through the floorboards—How to Be a Rock Critic is fundamentally interested in noise. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s tribute to the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (played by Jensen with shaggy, leaping enthusiasm) gives us a day-in-the-death account of the self-destructive Rolling Stone writer, as he scrabbles through his record collection and tells us his trouble-filled life story. It’s loving and nicely constructed, and the quotations from Bangs’s writing have a sometimes incantatory power. But it’s also an indictment of the kind of hysterical epiphany-seeking that he and his kind ushered into criticism. Don’t worship anyone, the play cautions: not your rock gods, and not this poor, foolish, eternally adolescent critic either. On the extreme other end of maturity, the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik takes his dad-who’s-learned-some-things act onto the stage in The Gates: An Evening of Stories. The best gag is the first: He has an audience member tape out a nine-by-eleven-foot shape on the floor, which turns out to be the dimensions of his and his wife’s first New York apartment. Gopnik has a charming delivery, with little syncopated rhythms at the end of his sentences. (Here he is talking about how his parents liked their steak: “Rare for them meant the eternal pink bloodiness of [pause] [pause] [pause] Europe.”) The stories are compelling, but  he can’t resist ending each of them a note of sentimental realization; you might find an hour and a half of awwww a bit much.

For the right kind of “a bit much": The great boundary-smasher Erin Markey is doing a smorgasbord show called Rainbow Caverns at Joe’s Pub, performing greatest hits from her past shock-cabarets like Boner Killer and an upcoming piece called Little Surfer, which—well, my fifteen years in the business of describing shows leaves me without a single useful tool to describe it. There were women in green sequins sing-barking at us? That’s all I can say. Markey’s gift for anarchy is one of the great clarifying forces we’ve got: Her comic wildness and her voice blast through you like a storm blowing backward. It churns up logic—why why why is her lover a boat?!—but somehow the disruption leaves your life better organized than it was before.

Next week: more dispatches from the festival front.

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