Currently in its ninth season, Under The Radar is The Public Theater’s annual festival of experimental theater from around the globe. Running from January 9 to January 20, 2013, this year’s 12-day showcase offered an array of contemporary theater artists presenting cutting edge works to eager and enthusiastic audiences lured by low-cost tickets, intriguing international productions, and the pedigree of Festival Director Mark Russell, the former artistic director of downtown stalwart, PS 122. UTR 13 featured returning favorites Belarus Free Theater (Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker) as well as New York darlings Elevator Repair Service (Arguendo) and Nature Theater of Oklahoma (Life and Times: Episodes 1-4), among others.
2 DIMENSIONAL LIFE OF HER
2 Dimensional Life of Her from Australia’s Insite Arts premiered at the Brisbane Festival in 2008 and has been presented at over 30 venues in a dozen countries. The show, traveling to Israel and France after UTR, is performed, conceived, directed, and designed by Fleur Elise Noble. Ms. Noble also created the artwork hanging in the lobby of The Public during UTR and the interior design for the after-hours Festival Lounge.
The 40-minute 2 Dimensional blends drawing, animation, puppetry, projection, and performance into a breathtakingly beautiful multimedia theater piece. A stage strewn with easels, blank canvases, and crumpled sheets of paper announces itself as an artist’s studio. Evocatively lit, its blacks, whites, and greys are nonetheless vibrant, waiting to explode into new tableaux from scene to scene. Video is projected onto the white spaces, showing the artist at work either creating or erasing her drawings, and sometimes entering or exiting a cardboard cutout of her own silhouette. Mini manikin-esque marionettes soon appear in stop motion with their strings clearly visible but their Svengali invisible.
The near wordlessness of the show produces a most profound effect. The throughline of conflict between art and artist comes through loud and clear amidst the silence. The darkness-breaking lighting of cigarettes by the puppets portends of a fiery coup d’état. A kind of language is created as the scrubbing clean of the canvases (aided by a sensational sound design by Jeremy Neideck) thus becomes a power struggle in this imaginary world between creator and creation.
Ms. Noble appears at the end of the piece, shattering the fantasy world she has devised. Alive with life where none actually exists, the two-dimensional thus becomes three-dimensional. Up to that moment, audience members are more apt to expect the formidable figurines to break through from their insular world into ours.
2 Dimensional is a stunning spectacle, where you wait for something, anything, someone, anyone, to appear on the roving scrims as the composition takes over and revolts against the composer.
HAMLET, PRINCE OF GRIEF
First performed in June 2011 as part of the Mono Leev Festival at the Entezami Hall-Iranian Artists Forum and then later at the City Theater in Tehran as well as the International Theater Fadjr Festival, Hamlet, Prince of Grief from the Tehran-based nonprofit Leev Theater Group is a very loose 30-minute adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.
Directed with concise clarity by Mohammad Aghebati with a script by Mohammad Charmshir, Prince of Grief is a compelling one-man show as performed by acclaimed TV, film, and theater actor Afshin Hashemi. His expressive eyes and rueful gestures relate a story of a young man unwittingly thrust into the conspiracy of his father’s death and his mother and uncle’s complicity in it (with a slight departure from the Bard’s original narrative).
Presented in Farsi with English supertitles, the show is actually presented in the universal language of play-acting. This Hamlet has the feel of a child creating a story from the contents of his or her toy chest. An elephant becomes Hamlet’s mother, a tyrannosaurus rex represents his scheming uncle and soon-to-be stepfather, a squeaky owl dog toy the verbose Polonius, and a tattered doll the doomed Ophelia.
Seated at a small table throughout the performance, Hashemi literally unpacks his bag of tricks as the show progresses, pulling from a suitcase a collection of objects that become characters and props in his storytelling. The suitcase acts as a sort of picnic basket containing the utensils and nourishment necessary to serve up the meaty tale of death and betrayal.
The suitcase is a symbol of escape — for both the audience members traveling to a theatrical world and of the many Iranian people who fled the oppressive regime of their homeland. The table too and the harsh spotlight in which the actor performs are reminiscent of interrogation techniques, as in commonplace police procedurals on television that start, “Tell me what happened… from the beginning.” All these symbols coalesce in a provocative show that leaves many unanswered questions.
Flashes of humor, as when Hamlet’s monologue is continually interrupted by cellphone calls from his mother and rubber palm trees whizzing by signifying a car driving down a road, bring the show into distinctly modern times. But this is a Hamlet as seen through the lens of today’s Iranian artists, where the domestic drama shrewdly mirrors the political.
At the end of the performance, the actor is shown with three bloody bullet holes in his back, falling over dead, representing both the cowardice inherent in the poisoning of King Hamlet while he slept as well as the callous brutality of tyrannical governments who silence their opponents by whatever means necessary. It’s a chilling conclusion to a story that most audiences think they know the ending of.
C’EST DU CHINOIS
Directed and conceptualized by Netherlands-based Hungarian Edit Kaldor and produced by Stichting Kata (Amsterdam) and Productiehuis Rotterdam, C’est du Chinois premiered in June 2012 at the Alkantara Festival in Lisbon and has since been performed in a dozen countries all over the world.
C’est du Chinois (the French equivalent to “It’s all Greek to me”) is ostensibly a Chinese language lesson as taught by a newly arrived immigrant family from Shanghai. Performed entirely in Mandarin without supertitles, the show is a fascinating exploration of communicating using signs and gestures. It’s a game of language in which the players are the audience.
The Yao and Lu families are joined by marriage. At the start of the show, the father hands a sheet of paper to an audience member in the front row that states “Thank you for your interest to learn Mandarin.” From then on, about 50 or so words and a number of phrases using those words are taught by holding up an object, saying the word in Mandarin, and having the audience repeat the word when prompted with a tuning whistle. Many words are close to or similar to their English counterpoints, such as cola, tofu, feng shui, and chocolate.
Over the course of 70 minutes, a rudimentary understanding of Mandarin is absorbed (for attentive audience members), but a much deeper comprehensive of the struggles of immigrant families to communicate and connect to others is also presented. Quips and quibbles between family members become readily apparent, with Mama displaying a obvious dislike of her daughter-in-law’s work ethic, all parties voicing a fear of the oldest son’s escalating drinking, and conflicting views of money and consumerism becoming clear without comprehendible verbal explanation. More complicated terms such as fear, happiness, and sadness are acted out nimbly by the charming and charismatic ensemble, with analogous gestures amply demonstrating the emotions.
Wondering aloud whether the main points of their show came across to the audience, one of the cast members asked me, “But did you understand the story?” during a casual after-performance conversation. Without saying a word, I nodded “yes.”
Charles Bales, Associate Artistic Director of Voyage Theater Company, is a former advertising copywriter/current theater-maker. He graduated from Duke University with a BA degree in English and Philosophy and from CUNY–Brooklyn College in 2010 with an MA degree in Theater History & Criticism, where he completed his thesis on August Strindberg. Charles has worked as a dramaturg on various projects with acting students at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and writing monthly theater reviews for the websites nytheatre.com and offoffonline.com. Charles is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Association of Theatre Critics.