Under the Radar 2014: In brief
The Public and downtown impresario Mark Russell present edgy new works from all over the globe, including 600 Highwaymen's The Record, John Hodgman's I Stole Your Dad, Edgar Oliver's Helen & Edgar, Roger Guenveur Smith's Rodney King, SKaGeN's BigMouth and Daniel Fish's Eternal. For more details and tickets visit the festival site.
Under the Radar 2014: Dispatch No. 2 by Helen Shaw
If you enjoyed our last dispatch from Under the Radar (see below), you will, perhaps, have read between the lines and realized that I saw a billion shows at once. That's true, and it was a gas. This year's festival has maintained a lovely standard; everything I've seen has been solid, clever, true. So far nothing has completely toppled my sense of self (like, say, the Gob Squad premiere of two fests ago)—and that has actually been rather clarifying. It feels like a return to first principles here: Make simple work, labor industriously over it, and talk honestly within it.
One work that prides itself on careful attention and the shifting line between performance and nonperformance is 600 Highwaymen's The Record, which slyly sidesteps the fact that it is, in fact, a dance piece. Pedestrian gestures performed by a strikingly diverse three-dozen-strong ensemble (how depressing that its diversity is striking) pares away almost every usual theatrical tool: language, pretense, scenario. What's left is simply event: eddying crowds of people of various ages and sizes and colors running into the Martinson Theater to perform microchoreography while facing almost invariably out. (Their mild gazes seem focused on the audience, though they are actually reading a clock mounted behind us, which ticks out the precise 61 minutes they have to perform.)
Why isn't this (what seems like the world's best-behaved flash mob) dull? It rewards the prepared mind: Come ready to let your attention skim above and through the piece. Creators Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone have a curator's sense of position, and so the mise en scène often looks like a sculpture gallery of Aphrodites in sweatshirts. And this in itself encourages a lighter sense of expectation for forward movement.
I do prefer what 600 Highwaymen did with a similarly radical-inclusion-minded company in This Great Country, their astounding version of Death of a Salesman. Marry this technique to a sturdy text, and it's a killer. But even here, with just the textural bed of everyday bodies moving around, the experience can be a pleasure, particularly when seen against Brandon Wolcott and Emil Abramyan's score for cello and laptop. Their electroclassical music is heartbreaking; indeed, The Record completely cedes its emotional journey to it. Alone, the composition might seem sentimental, but paired with the deliberate, ultradry staging, the two manage probity, clarity, seriousness and weight.—Reviews by Helen Shaw
I Stole Your Dad: Theater review by David Cote
John Hodgman takes the stage in I Stole Your Dad looking like a baby-faced Unabomber, swaddled in a hoodie, multiple T-shirts, a Windbreaker—not to mention aviator sunglasses and a ’70s cop ’stache. The deadpan comedian (interviewed here) explains that everything he’s wearing is swag, free stuff he's acquired at celebrity events or from TV gigs. Thus the process of peeling off items of clothing would seem to represent both the performer’s exposure of his inner self as well as his rejection of showbiz glamour. Or rather, it would if you took anything he said or did at face value. Hodgman is a prime example of the post–Andy Kaufman performance comic: not content to crack one-liners, not pretentious enough to call what he’s doing art. Instead, like Kaufman, he traverses the quirky, the perverse, the banal and the trivial, weaving personal anecdotes, pop-culture references and good clean prose into a very funny program. With his patented asexual-perv stare and coolly contemptuous delivery, Hodgman touches on a precocious and solitary childhood, the bewildering strangeness of Florida surf shops, and watching Downton Abbey with his children, whom he recasts as talking cats (this piece was published in a recent issue of The New Yorker). Growing old and uncool is a recurring theme. Hodgman ends his collection of riffs in a dress channeling novelist Ayn Rand, strumming an electric ukulele and barking at us to sing along. By the standards of Under the Radar or the Coil Festival, I Stole Your Dad is hardly the freakiest night out—more of a brainy-melancholy vibe at the intersection of Garrison Keillor and Chris Ware. But if you only know Hodgman from his psuedoreference books or arch appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, you’ll see a side of him previously hidden in the dark.—Theater review by David Cote
RECOMMENDED: Q&A with John Hodgman for Under the Radar
Under the Radar 2014: Dispatch No. 1 by Helen Shaw
How does the old saying go? Starve a cold; feed a fever; glut on performance in January to battle seasonally induced melancholia? Yes, that's it. Anybody who's feeling a little blah this month is henceforth prescribed one season pass to whichever of the festivals (or all of them!) best suits their blood type. After a few full days of dashing around happily at the Under the Radar festival, though, I must caution you that the works I've seen so far tend toward the sober-minded. Maybe it's a good sign that theater is turning away from being escapist and adorable and is now back to reminding us of the dominance of small minds and, of course, death.
Two beautiful UTR pieces, for instance, move unabashedly into the seam between show and eulogy. After performing his moving spoken-word solo show Rodney King, Roger Guenveur Smith even folded his hands over his microphone, murmuring his thanks to the audience for “praying with us.” That bit of glibness was the only false note in an otherwise powerful memorial to those bound up in the violence that followed King's 1991 beating by police. In an oblique, almost crooning obituary, Smith constantly calls on King, asking the ether for an account of the assault (represented here as an explosive, awful counting of the LAPD's “power blows”) and finally summoning King's ghost to repeat his 1992 televised cry for peace. “Can't we all just…get along?” he whispers, as the lights smoothly fade.
For sheer heart-wrenching anguish, though, I would recommend the far messier blessing the boats: the remix, which operates as sweet, funny, anguished valediction for its original author, the late poet-musician Sekou Sundiata. Three of our best (remaining) stage poets (Mike Ladd, Will Power and Carl Hancock Rux) replay and reperform Sundiata's staccato 2002 account of his physical troubles—specifically his quest to find a new kidney; then each bids Sundiata his own lyrical farewell. It's exquisite language and emotion, both spent recklessly. Director-conceiver Rhodessa Jones has made something that doesn't dwell on grace, but I'm convinced that listening to it could make the lame walk.
It's a jolly festival, in which you feel you can't put a foot wrong. Elsewhere in the Public you can find the thoroughly enjoyable JDX—A Public Enemy, revived by its creators, the actorcentric Belgian group tg STAN. A sprightly version of Ibsen's prescient environmental drama Enemy of the People makes a virtue out of being seemingly unprepared: Four suited actors sail Brechtianly through their text (rather like actors running lines), snatching up roles (by untucking a shirt, say) and listening carefully to the hardworking prompter, who also reads stage directions. With nothing other than the supertitles behind them, the quartet grasps the work best by holding it lightly—they smile at us ingratiatingly, pause for latecomers, gesture helpfully at the translation and generally model a good society while portraying a bad one.
For an even more dazzling thespian display, though, you must go to BigMouth, a virtuoso speechathon by tg STAN's fellow Belgian Valentijn Dhaenens, who—with nothing other than a tableful of microphones—intones speeches by Pericles, Goebbels, Ann Coulter, bin Laden, Patton, the works. Then, he sings. It's a savvy use of his actor tool kit, in that his linguistic flexibility, musicality, charisma and fierce blond head all add to the excitement and menace.
In one of the weird inversions of this January madness, La MaMa E.T.C. plays host to the festival's richest-looking work. Walk through the Public's luxe Palladian lobby and you enter dim theaters full of small works, miniaturely produced, without sets, tour-ready with tiny casts. In an accidentally lovely effect in JDX—A Public Enemy, the actors' moving bodies stir rising clouds of dust in the Public's Shiva Theater—a poor man's shower of gold. But find your way up from La MaMa's cheerfully grungy entrance and you'll discover Lola Arias's documentary barn burner El Año En Que Nací…, full of bodies, motion, color, design and—in one coup de théâtre—nine electric guitars. A disarmingly simple, almost childlike construction of nine youngish Chileans recounting family life under Pinochet's dictatorship, El Año nonetheless seems ruthlessly adult, particularly as the cast plays semiserious games, tossing a coin to predict whether or not their hard-won leftist revolution will slip back toward the right. It's a marvelously entertaining show that also happens to be a hell of an education. If you need to determine whether you should see it or not—flip a penny, and go if it turns up American.—Theater review by Helen Shaw