Turkey Cock, Frankenstein, and Fur Hats: Welcome to Avant-Garde Festival January

A review roundup of shows in Under the Radar, Coil, and more

Remember when January used to be cold? And theatrically moribund? A chill time to hunker down near the radiator and scoff leftover fruitcake? No more.

In 2005, Mark Russell founded the Under the Radar festival, a jumble of international experiments and local favorites designed to appeal to the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, who hold their annual conference in New York in mid January. Other festivals (P.S.122’s COIL, the Incubator’s Other Forces) soon sprang up, and unaffiliated companies and consulates also got in on the action. Now, APAP attendees and lucky residents have scads of offerings to choose among. January has become a very hot time.

This year the Voice spent a week gladly darting from venue to venue in search to assemble a sampling of the odd, the unclassifiable, the ineluctably gooey. On display: dinosaurs, Hitler, translators, tofu, rabbits, and some very viscous brains.

Two shows concentrate on minor characters of major works. In I, Malvolio (the New Victory at the Duke on 42nd Street), actor-writer-provocateur Tim Crouch upends Twelfth Night to center it on Malvolio, Olivia’s uptight butler who becomes a victim at the hands of Sir Toby and his cohorts. Crouch emerges wearing a ragged, piss-stained onesie, cuckold’s horns on his head and a sign blaring “Turkey Cock” taped to his back. He spends the first part of the performance attacking the audience, calling us drunks, layabouts, and most other insults in the Shakespearean playbook. Then he invites children onstage (did I mention this a kiddie show?) to kick him, dress him, and help him hang himself. (The tweens giggled throughout, but surely there are major therapy bills in the offing.) It’s a clever, nasty, and very funny hour in the theater, and will likely send a tot or two back to the original, where they’ll find not all of the dirty jokes are Crouch’s.

Kristen Kosmas’s There There (at the Chocolate Factory as part of the Coil Festival) offers a less assaultive take on a dramatic also-ran, Staff Captain Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. The conceit is that Christopher Walken has been hired to do a one-man show based on Solyony, but as Walken has fallen off a ladder (or was he pushed?), Karen (Kosmas), the script’s copy-editor, has been deputized as an understudy, while a woman (Larissa Tokmakova) offers simultaneous Russian translation. Kosmas does include all of Solyony’s lines, but the show is far less a tribute to Chekhov’s malcontent than it is a celebration of the complexities of ever capturing character, mood, language. Sometimes the writing drifts too far into poetry, but for the most part Kosmas grounds it in her bright-eyed, fur-hatted performance.

Maybe Iranian playwright Mohammad Charmshir should have stuck to a minor character for Hamlet, Prince of Grief (UTR at the Public). Instead, this solo toy theater piece featuring actor Afshin Hashemi merely relocates the tragedy to the contemporary Middle East. This does lend the tale a touch of universality, but the toy theater approach palls even in this short show—or maybe some of the force becomes lost in translation to plastic figurines.

Speaking of translation, you may be surprised to find how much Mandarin you already know: “tofu,” “kung-fu,” “feng shui,” “cola.” In Edit Kaldor’s clever and disarming UTR piece C’est du Chinois (a colloquial French expression, roughly the equivalent of “it’s all Greek to me”), five Chinese actors endeavor to acquaint the audience with enough Mandarin to understand a story of immigrant striving and familial discontent. But just as we become thoroughly engaged in their struggles, they reveal the tale as a pretext to sell language-learning DVDs, which several in the audience purchased.

As the C’est du Chinois performers work together, they reveal interpersonal tensions, but not nearly as severe as those that break out in Back to Back Theatre’s thorny Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. This Australian company, which made its UTR debut a few years ago with Small Metal Objects, includes several actors with intellectual disabilities. Here, they’ve gathered to perform a show about the elephant god’s attempt to rescue the swastika, originally a Sanskrit symbol, from the Nazis. But soon the frame story (however beautifully staged by Bruce Gladwin) reveals itself as a ruse to discuss abuses of power, most of them present in the theater itself among the troupe of actors. If some of the critiques expressed by the actors seem too obvious or too pointed, most are subtle and resonant.

The detailed elephant mask that a Ganesh performer wears finds an odd echo in the full-length bunny suits donned by a quartet of actors in Zero Cost House, a UTR collaboration between Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company and Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada. Mostly a meditation on Okada’s writing life, the play uses Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, with which a younger Okada was obsessed, as a leitmotif in this exploration of how to work and live. In the aftermath of the tsunami and the ensuing Fukushima disaster, Okada returns to Walden and imagines encounters with Thoreau. If the piece can seem at times underpowered and diffuse (those rabbits), it is also often moving and a fine showcase for Pig Iron stalwarts Dito Van Reigersberg and James Sugg.

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