The Call of Nature

New York-based Nature Theater of Oklahoma shine in the Under the Radar festival

It's down there somewhere, in a backwater coil of our DNA. The lowly gene that finally answers the question: Why do humans always find an actor's slipping mustache so stupidly funny?

Zachary Oberzan struggled valiantly with this in an early workshop of No Dice, the newest production by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. But it was accidently apt. Fake mustache, a pirate hat, and some terrible foreign accents all figure prominently in the show, which Kelly Copper, a writer for the company, describes as "a melodramatic take on amateur dinner theater." The play, still a work in progress, is one of the highlights of this year's Under the Radar festival, the Public Theater's program of avant-garde performance that runs January 17 through 28 at various venues around town (publictheater.org/UTR). Pieces by U.K. duo Lone Twin, Bolivian collective Teatro de los Andes, French writer-director Olivier Py, and monologuist Mike Daisey are also among its 15 diverse offerings. Curator Mark Russell describes Under the Radar as "in between a fringe and the Next Wave Festival"—a way to spotlight work that downtowners might know but "rest-of-towners" do not.

Over the past several years the Nature Theater of Oklahoma has evolved into one of New York's most talented ensembles, whether adapting Von Horvath's Kasimir & Karoline, collaging Greek texts in Fragment, or flipping conventions of the proscenium in Poetics: A Ballet Brut. Helmed by director Pavol Liska, their shows are smart, witty, highly physical, and eager to twist notions of theatricality. Russell calls Liska "one of the most interesting downtown voices I've seen in a long while."

Mustache-a-go-go in No Dice
photo: Peter Nigrini
Mustache-a-go-go in No Dice

The ensemble has its roots at Dartmouth, where Liska, Copper, Oberzan, and designer Peter Nigrini met in 1994. After six shows in New York, in 2005 the expanding group took the name Nature Theater of Oklahoma, from the theater in Kafka's novel Amerika. The company boasts some peculiarly watchable performers — especially Oberzan, Anne Gridley, and Robert Johanson, the lead trio in No Dice. Neither traditional actors nor the kind of nonactors writer-director Richard Maxwell sometimes uses, they perform in a way that's off-kilter yet deeply rooted; their stage aura both repels you and draws you in. "They can be inside or outside the art form," notes Liska, "or simultaneously inside and outside it." Liska adds that his actors are effective because "they're thinking—filmmaker Jack Smith once said, 'Thinking is dramatic.'"

"They're intense personalities," says Russell. "After a show you feel you know them. They're dealing off their presence." These stage presences served especially well in the wordless Poetics: A Ballet Brut, mounted at Riverside Church theater and one of last season's best shows. Though Poetics ran only four performances, it earned cult status. With the audience seated onstage facing the house, the company, plus 16 student performers, used the rest of the stage and the empty auditorium for a delightfully ingenious piece about the nature of theater and spectatorship.

No Dice, though, has lots of words. Four hours' worth. The play is derived from 70 hours of taped phone conversations Liska conducted with friends, relatives, and the cast about their jobs and personal problems. Liska calls it "an epic of the everyday," adding that they "wanted to generate the texts orally, because it's going to be presented orally." Instead of memorizing the text, the cast acts out the conversations while listening to the original recordings, which play into each performer's ear from an iPod—recordings that sometimes fall out of synch with one another. Combined with the inappropriate and amateurish costumes—like that fake mustache—No Dice has an out-of-whack but oddly humane cumulative effect.

The Nature Theater of Oklahoma's next show might be based on tapes again, of conference calls, but they're not quite sure. Uncertainty, though, is part of the ethos. "If we knew what the next show was," Liska says, "we'd probably do something else."

 
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