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January theater festival reviews 2018, Part II

Written by
Helen Shaw

There comes a time in the glut of January theater festivals when sheer quantity kind of becomes the point. Did you see four shows today? Five? Honestly, I love this sensation; to those of us who worry that the ecology of New York is strangling experimental performance, this onslaught is comforting. It might not be great for the work, though. Images of the brooms from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice dance in your head: Each show marches up cheerfully bearing its two buckets of art, spills them in front of you and moves on.

That’s can be a tough environment when a piece needs space and quiet. Under the Radar programmed two quite grave shows that looked raucous but actually demanded some time to think through, and the bazaar atmosphere did abrade them slightly. The visiting Cuban production Antigonón, Un Contigente Epicó contains lots of burlesque swagger—but it also has a mystery in it, which I never managed to figure out. Four nude actors do a simple dance, then put on a series of costumes that are like Carnival versions of the tarot: a bare-breasted woman draped in thousands of gold beads; another bedecked in aluminum cans like a recyclable Queen of Cups. Most of Rogelio Orizondo’s baroque text is composed of serial monologues, which, taken together, form a dark, multi-voice poem about the way that young people die for their elders. The performances are strong, and director Carlos Díaz’s image of a drag-queen Cuba is mesmerizing. Still, I wished it hadn’t been part of the Radar scrum, so I could have spent more time puzzling it out.

Dickie Beau’s Re-Member Me, by contrast, has only three simple ingredients. Dickie Beau bops around the stage in rainbow sweatband and tiny shorts, while videos play of him lip-syncing along to a series of recorded interviews of British theater artists (a dresser, Ian McKellen, Richard Eyre) speaking about the actor Ian Charleson, who died in 1990. Re-Member Me is moving because of these elegies: Charleston’s friends and colleagues remembering his now-legendary 1989 Hamlet, performed as he was in the final stages of dying from AIDS. But with such absorbing content, the action itself becomes a frantic but meaningless embroidery. I suspect that Dickie Beau means for there to be an ironic counterpoint between his own at-a-loose-ends quality (he spends a lot of time moving mannequin parts around) and Charleson’s staggering focus and precision. But the hurly-burly of the festival drowned anything subtle like that out; the show felt very much like two beasts, a gorgeous audio-testimonial and a rather wan live performance.

Elsewhere in Under the Radar, old favorites returned, though not with their best work. Last year, Andrew Schneider’s triumphant YOUARENOWHERE made him the tech-forward experimenter to beat, and After leaned heavily into his strength—a vivid, brilliantly integrated design world—but also revealed something undercooked about his writing. The show progresses in short, flashing scenes, cut apart by abrupt blackouts and a menacing electric hum; an incredibly long sequence in total dark culminates in a foggy sunrise, one of the most beautiful stage-design moments I’ve seen. Luckily, that eclipses the banality of the text, a series of “epiphanies” about death that might sound better if you’re stoned. The words could evaporate right out of After, leaving only goodness behind.

The much-loved Nature Theater of Oklahoma rose from its own ashes—apart from directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the entire company seems to have—to offer Pursuit of Happiness, a collaboration with the Slovenia-based dance troupe EnKnapGroup. On the bright side, it did fine in the festival environment, since it was 98% goofball. In Liska and Copper’s ersatz Spaghetti Eastern, bowlegged cowpokes announce their self-doubts in Slovenian-accented English, pine for a meaningful life in art, then fall into cartoon fisticuffs. So silly! So loud! And eventually a bit tiresome. This was a theme of this year’s festivals: artists announcing that art won’t save us and regretting their own irrelevance. But the charm of Nature Theater has always been its deep certainty that whatever nonsense it’s up to (performing a phone call, trying to remember the plot of Romeo and Juliet) was a matter of galactic importance. It was wonderful to hear their work again—but a sense of perspective, of all things, just didn’t look right on them.

If you were hungry for perspective at Under the Radar, then your best bet was Split Britches’ Unexploded Ordnances at La MaMa, a crazy quilt of Doctor Strangelove references and a roundtable with sexagenarians in the audience. Somewhere in their last 30 years of making theater, Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw stopped assuming that they’ve got the answers, so they turn outwards and ask the elders in the room. What are they worried about? What do they still want to accomplish? At the performance I attended, the participants had wise and wonderful things to say.

Speaking of unexploded potential: It’s the new P.S. 122! Except it’s now called Performance Space New York, and seems weirdly unconcerned with its own past. (It has purged their Instagram account, for example.) What used to be the East Village’s spunkiest, stinkiest, scrappiest spot for off-the-wall, mainstream-resistant work has been reborn as something glossier. It’s a hodgepodge inside; they’re still finishing the renovation, so there’s brown paper on the floors and the paint seems fresh. But it’s open! The art soldiers on! And eventually the fresh paint will get scuffed up the way we like it.

I missed the grand opening of the final Coil festival upstairs in the big theater, but I couldn’t be happier to have inaugurated my new PSNY life with Dane Terry's wonderful Jupiter’s Lifeless Moons, in a tiny second-floor space that is basically the size of my couch. Everything about Moons is delicious. Terry tells us a long shaggy-dog story, punctuated with his songs: show tunes, torchy look-at-me numbers, achy pop heartbreakers, whatever the moment calls for. His confiding near-whisper makes us lean close, but the effect is somehow big-screen cinematic. With a trio of honey-voiced back-up singers and a trusty synthesizer, Terry creates underscoring that makes everything (even buying a pie) sound scary-movie portentous, but Moons isn’t the cold kind of horror flick; it’s a peach, summer-warm and juicy. His backup singers croon in close harmony; his villains turn suddenly into warm-hearted heroes; as the lights go out in Cleveland, the dark becomes more and more welcoming. Terry wanders through his adventure like Huckleberry Finn with a Grindr profile, finding carnal satisfaction and mysterious communion everywhere. It’s messy and sweet and queer and optimistic. I can think of no better way to baptize a theatrical space. 

RECOMMENDED: January theater festival reviews 2018, Part I

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