“We must look so funny,” said a young man seated behind me. Yes, we must—a hundred or so of us, assembled on metal risers, clad in our weekend wear, headphones clamped to our ears, all of us exposed in the bright fluorescence of the Whitehall Ferry Terminal. The crowds awaiting the ferry stared at us, and we stared back, trying to distinguish actors from passersby. Through our headphones, we could hear a conversation between two men, Gary and Steve. We knew they were in the station, but we couldn’t locate them—no, they were not the cops, not the Indian family, not the women on their cell phones, not the strange man making rude noises at the pigeons. Then a loudspeaker announced the ferry’s arrival, and as the room cleared, we saw our men in the middle distance. One was short and round (a woman playing a man’s role); the other was taller and slim, with a vast forehead. Once we’d sighted them, we settled in for Small Metal Objects by Australia’s Back to Back Theatre, one of the 17 pieces in this year’s Under the Radar festival.
Producer Mark Russell began Under the Radar in 2005 with eight shows at St. Ann’s Warehouse, as an event largely designed to showcase local talent for attendees of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference. Subsequently, the fest moved to the Public and various partner sites, doubled its offerings, emphasized the international, and designed showings that catered to civilian audiences as well as professionals. This year’s schedule includes drama, dance, installations, spoken word, and an unclassifiable piece I considered myself too weak-stomached for: Regurgitophagy, which includes electroshocks and vomiting.
Following Small Metal Objects, I caught the train uptown to the Public for Generation Jeans, presented by the Belarus Free Theatre in their U.S. debut. Despite manifold distractions—performer Nikolai Khalezin’s lavish hair, the fast-moving supertitles, the back of audience member Tom Stoppard’s head (close enough to touch!)—a moving solo piece emerged. Khalezin uses denim trousers as a metaphor for the seemingly unattainable freedom and cool of the West. He tours illicit swap meets, underground record clubs, and jail cells filled with dissidents. Though the symbolism is heavy-handed and the script overlong, pathos still surfaces. Happily, unlike at a recent performance back
in Belarus, police did not arrive to arrest artists and audience.
Mark O’Rowe’s unusual verse drama Terminus, a production from Ireland’s Abbey Theatre, was arresting. A mélange of pub-speak and Milton, Terminus consists of three interlocking monologues composed in syncopated rhyme. The stories play out in a Dublin populated by sad sacks and killers, as well as angels and demons. In the course of an evening, two women and a man negotiate life, death, and rebirth. O’Rowe’s overwrought language could easily slide into the ludicrous, as in this
description of avenging seraphim: “hunters, shunting into the bind, the breach, each set of eyes, ever bright, never waning, ever gaining, no abstaining in pursuit relentless.” But the breakneck pace of O’Rowe’s direction and the skill of the cast keep the lines grounded.
The Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s leaping, twirling Poetics: A Ballet Brut, however, aims for liftoff. After visiting work from Australia, Belarus, and Ireland, it was soothing to conclude with a performance by one of New York’s own companies (albeit one whose founder hails from Slovakia). Not recognizably Aristotelian but fabulously dramatic, Poetics consists of four performers grooving to tawdry pop songs. Playing havoc with the rules of theatrics and good taste, creators Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper have crafted another giddy, generous, and adorable performance piece, though one slighter than their recent No Dice. (The company actually created Poetics first.) The routines consist of odd, gestural choreography, apparently arranged at random. It’s difficult to imagine what sort of theater would produce so eccentric a show, but at Under the Radar, to quote Poetics’ “Safety Dance,” “everybody’s takin’ the chance.”