Off the Grid
New York has officially reached the saturation point for contemporary performance in the month of January. When the Association of Performing Arts Presenters comes to town for their annual conference, the city revs its entrepreneurial engines. At least five festivals of new performances now take place during the same two weeks, all of them competing for the attention of beleaguered producers who zip from show to show in search of tourable acts.
With so many showcases spread across town, there's simply too much supply, even though demand is high, too. The 10-year-old Under the Radar, presented by the Public Theater, anchor of the January festivals, now looks like the elder of the pack, with more established artists, links to America's resident theaters, and the most traditional dramatic forms. COIL, the multidisciplinary festival of PS 122, takes an expansive view of performance, while across town at Abrons Arts Center the American Realness festival offers edgier dance and performance for a younger crowd. If that weren't enough to squeeze into two weeks, the Prototype festival presents new opera and music theater — and, this year, the upstart festival Special Effects lured adventurous artgoers off the beaten path (and may be the one to watch in future years).
I focused only on Under the Radar and COIL for a week, and encountered treasure as well as disappointment — but I still missed some of the most promising shows (BigMouth and The Room Nobody Knows). (Many run through January 19, so you can currently catch these as well as a number of others.)
Two poetic works were among the most moving and suggestive: Muazzez, written and directed by Mac Wellman, is a sly and frequently beautiful monologue about "the profound nature of things" on a less-traveled planet. Steve Mellor speaks from the viewpoint of an abandoned cigar factory — yes, that's right — with suggestive nuance, especially vulnerable and dour in a sequence recounting "the ringing of my inner telephone." blessing the boats: the remix revives a "performance essay" by the late poet Sekou Sundiata, taking its time with layers of language, and accumulating a power that's hard to shake off. A memoir of kidney failure and recovery might sound improbable for the stage, but director Rhodessa Jones has deftly calibrated the project so that an individual's medical predicament reveals unearthly spiritual forces. Three men (Carl Hancock Rux, Mike Ladd, and Will Power — accomplished writer-performers themselves) share the recitation of Sundiata's text, reflecting on medicine, the body, and the will.
If you like ethereal, you might also enjoy The Record, 600 Highwaymen's wordless assembly of bodies onstage. The project — directed by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone — brings an array of mostly amateur participants on and off stage mechanically, each performer executing independent gestures and timed by an unseen clock. (Surprisingly, that structural principle isn't readily transparent to viewers.) It's a purely formalist exercise with precedents in dance — the Judson choreographers come to mind — but I couldn't see the radical rigor in The Record; the stage felt empty to me even as it filled up with a crowd and swelled with soft music and white light.
Heather Kravas's a quartet, on the other hand, offered rich and unexpected choreographic compositions with four often virtuosic dancers (Oren Barnoy, Cecilia Eliceche, Jennifer Kjos, and Liz Santoro). In sequences varied by rhythm and tone, Kravas seems to explore themes of oppression, including the rigidity of form. The final sequence, with the quartet menacingly jangling cow bells, adds a layer of aggression to this altogether admirable piece.
The prize for abstraction, however, would have to go to An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk, an amusing provocation conceived and directed by Phil Soltanoff. Soltanoff has digitized recordings of the dialogue uttered by Shatner throughout Star Trek, broken down word by word. Manipulating those video archives through a computer system, Shatner — or is it his character, the handsome and authoritative Captain Kirk? — now offers a video lecture on science and aesthetics. (The text is by Joe Diebes.) "You. Could. Call. It. A. Transmission. About. The. Future," he begins, each word a fragment cut from the series.
Shatner goes on to contrast being and nonbeing, inner and external life, and he fixates on "savage people who don't make art." Soltanoff knows when to mix up the pace, occasionally introducing a live performer, and strategically cutting away to a scene of Kirk and his posse on an alien planet fending off bow-and-arrow–slinging primitives, so that Shatner can endorse, then back away from, the idea of colonization. "That. Was. Just. A. Joke," the square-jawed captain tells us at the end — but there's a small mountain of ironies to savor about making art about science.
On the other hand, JDX — A Public Enemy is theater about making theater. Created by the 25-year-old Belgian collective tg STAN, who work without a director, JDX has the ensemble tackling Henrik Ibsen's 1882 drama, An Enemy of the People, on a bare set, fussing stagily and ad-libbing while searching vainly for spontaneous life while fumbling through each scene.
The perfect antidote to dull theater games could be found in Lola Arias's El Año en Que Nací (The Year I Was Born). Created in Chile in collaboration with the performers, El Año resounds with purpose. This documentary project gathers 10 young Chileans to tell the story of their own parents' lives before and after the Augusto Pinochet regime. The choices another generation faced are considered, movingly, by this appealing group, who occasionally try to measure themselves: lining up by economic class, left- and right-wing tendencies, etc. Arias writes and directs with a tight hand, and although we don't know exactly how she has shaped these family stories, we can appreciate the personal archives opened for us and admire the forthrightness of this post-dictatorship generation.
It was a boon to attend Catch 60, the COIL-sponsored 10th anniversary evening of the performance series. (Watch for future nights.) Outside the multilevel Invisible Dog, throngs waited in hopes of cancellations; inside, short performances from an arsenal of downtown talent sprawled across two packed floors (simultaneously) with kegs flowing. (The evening could have been retitled "Upstairs/Downstairs.") The producers with clipboards and badges had vanished, but the downtown theater world was there, presenting short segments from works in progress. It was a good reminder that even in a month brimming with new works, the best is always to come.
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