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Ganesh Versus the Third Reich
Photograph: Jeff Busby

Under the Radar 2013: Review roundup No. 2

More reviews from the Public Theater’s trailblazing festival of international experimental work.

By Helen Shaw

The January showathon continues relentlessly onward, but don't flag now! Under the Radar has more to offer, and the news is good.

RECOMMENDED: See more Under the Radar festival coverage

First, though, the news is bad. Ganesh Versus the Third Reich—so far the buzziest and best of what I've seen—is over. A tremendous, moving piece by the disability-inclusive Back to Back company, Ganesh feels like this year's Gob Squad's Kitchen (You've Never Had It So Good), a wonderful show, doomed to a handful of performances, that deserves a triumphant return engagement.

Ganesh's excellence shouldn't come as a surprise, since Back to Back Theatre presented another of the great Under the Radar moments a few years ago, when their exquisite small metal objects took over South Ferry Terminal. That show, played among commuters and overheard by an audience in headphones, was a hushed, lovely piece about a Beckettian pair of friends moving hesitantly through a busy world. Ganesh doesn't need to be site-specific, nor to be particularly formally adventurous, to make a similarly overwhelming impact. In some ways, it's a conventional piece of devised theater: It piggybacks on myth (the titular elephant-headed god descends to earth), pretends to show moments from rehearsal, and alternates between showing us play identities and the performers' “real” selves. Yet the company, made up largely of intellectually disabled actors, makes the familiar formula fresh again by infusing it with humor and thematic elegance.

Shiva, angry that the Nazis have stolen the swastika, threatens to destroy the earth. Ganesh (Brian Tilley), protector and destroyer both, volunteers to rescue the divine symbol, thus saving mankind. He wanders through misty forests (stunningly created by backlit plastic drapes) with Vishnu (Luke Ryan) and Levi (Simon Laherty), the disabled prisoner he has liberated from Dr. Mengele. And though Nazis pursue them, the true obstacles come from within the company—Scott Price refuses to die correctly, or he questions the script or even the process of using disabled actors. Director-devisor-designer Bruce Gladwin's work moves between poor-theater scrappiness and sudden elegance, beginning his Ganesh as a funny, charming example of its genre and then sending it forward into serious realms of menace and self-reflection. If you were one of the benighted many who missed it, you can address your pleading letters for its return to Oskar Eustis, c/o the Public Theater.

Elsewhere in the Public's M.C. Escher stack of theaters, a piece you can still see is C'est du Chinois, a show making a wonderful case for education as entertainment. A company of Chinese-speaking actors, none of whom will utter a single English word for the 80-minute show, enter with a massive pile of plastic shopping bags. Out of these will come all the props necessary for our immersion language lesson (I can now confidently say “New York is nice” and “I drink beer” in Mandarin), as well as a whole load of family baggage.

Amsterdam-based conceiver-director Edit Kaldor only sketches very lightly here—we know things are wrong, but we aren't allowed to know much more. Since our minds are racing to retain our recently acquired vocabulary, we haven't got the attention necessary to empathize. It's only after the show that we notice how intelligently the largely nonpro actors have created a model of mankind's daily callousness.We were riveted, instructed, entertained and bettered by them, watching their every move, but for all that, we have managed to miss them entirely.

Click here for Under the Radar 2013: Review roundup No. 1.

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