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Zero Cost House
Photograph: Jacques-Jean TiziouA scene from Pig Iron Theatre Company's Zero Cost House

Under the Radar 2013: Review roundup No. 1

Helen Shaw’s initial advice for following the festival madness at Mark Russell's Under the Radar: Choose carefully.


The beautiful new Public Theater lobby is abuzz with acquisitive producers (many in town to shop for their coming seasons) and gossiping artists—the place is a happy hive of international and experimental conversation. But while the vibe is wonderful, my first two shows of Under the Radar 2013 left a bit to be desired.

RECOMMENDED: See more Under the Radar festival coverage

Beware, for instance, 2 Dimensional Life of Her, Fleur Elise Noble's projection piece from Australia. Despite running only 40 minutes, it's an overlong demonstration of video and puppetry technique that drifts as aimlessly as its own scrap-paper set. Painstakingly created scenes of black-and-white stop-motion animation play out on drifting piles of paper; a projected woman seems to scrub the surface of a screen to reveal footage of hairless, clay mannikins looming behind it. The show is endearingly rough-edged, and Noble has a good feel for how to make two dimensions seem menacing. Still, the piece needs its own third dimension, whether of text or concept, to make it worthwhile—till then, it's a set in search of a show.

At 110 intermissionless minutes of extreme quiet, the Pig Iron Theatre Company/Toshiki Okada collaboration Zero Cost House asks quite a bit of its jet-lagged international audience. And yes, I did have to be on snore patrol, keeping tabs on several snoozing audience members within ready reach of my elbows. But while the collaboratively built piece doesn't show its creators at their best advantage, it does have a few heartbroken stretches that are well worth seeing.

Okada (Five Days in March) likes to riff with the textures of boredom in his works; naturalistically slow, aimless conversations are to him what scales were to Coltrane. Here he works meta, introducing himself (played first by Dito van Reigersberg, then others) and his younger self (Shavon Norris), both interested in meeting their onetime hero, Henry David Thoreau. Okada is also writing about a rabbit family (Mary McCool and comic mastermind James Sugg) whose concerns about carrot preparation segue into concerns about post-Fukushima radiation.

At first we're caught in a long, introspective work on Okada's loss of naïveté, and on his changing relationship to Walden. This begins delightfully, but director Dan Rothenberg lets things drag on fully 20 minutes too long. By the time the show makes its crucial turn—away from the playwright and out into the wider, post-tsunami Japan—too few of us were still listening. Looked at as a whole, House has a sluggish quality. But for those who heard it, buried as it was in the center of this long, quiet work, Okada's first confession of grief was absolutely electric.

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