The stage shows a drab apartment, bare save for a folding table piled with wine, snacks, and electronic debris. Here, a slender man named Serge (Gaëtan Vourc’h) produces theatrical enchantment. Every week, he invites a group of friends to witness one of his “effects.” They arrive. He performs “Luminous Effect on Music by Wagner” or “Laser Effect on Music by John Cage,” homegrown spectacles that he produces with a set of headlights or a pair of glow-in-the-dark eyeglasses. Then the invitees depart.
This play—L’Effet de Serge, by the French company Vivarium Studio—runs less than an hour. It lacks plot, elides character, ignores dialogue, and skimps on design elements. And yet this piece, which I first saw at the Lókal Festival in Iceland, is one of the most poignant theatrical works I’ve witnessed. Though there’s almost nothing in it that Aristotle and his ilk would recognize as a play, L’Effet de Serge somehow communicates the essence of theater itself. It demonstrates how the simplest object, the merest gesture, can produce wonder. It’s one of several shows in this year’s Under the Radar Festival that marries a low-tech aesthetic to high theatricality.
UTR runs from January 6 to 17 at the Public Theater and partnering venues such as La MaMa and 3LD. As festival curator Mark Russell explains, “A lot of the performances we’re doing are pretty simple technologically. All of them are trying to get at the essence of what theater has to do now. They’re interested in the special magic in theater, the thing that can only happen in a live performance.”
Sometimes this magic is evoked with exceeding gentleness, as in L’Effet de Serge or Space Panorama, in which U.K. artist Andrew Dawson re-creates the Apollo 11 moon landing using only his upper body. Other times, the minimal materials contribute to a more raucous sensibility, as in Jerk, a brutal tale of a serial killer enacted with stuffed animals and hand puppets, or Jollyship the Whizbang, a scurrilous pirate epic whose set and main characters are slapdash amalgams of wood, plastic resin, and papier-mâché.
Nick Jones, one of Jollyship‘s stewards, clarifies low-tech’s appeal: “There’s something wonderfully theatrical about seeing a world made of cheap stuff you can recognize,” he says. “I also think it keeps you on the edge of your seat to think the whole show is held together by duct tape and spit.” Of course, Jones admits the lo-fi appearance of his show is somewhat illusory. Successfully executing a puppet opera requires great care and precision. He and his partner had thought that “using puppets would be a way to become more portable and independent . . . punk rock theater.” Instead, they found that puppets created “a tech nightmare.”
Despite what might happen backstage, these shows still maintain the illusion of a DIY sensibility that highlights the theatrical potential inherent in ordinary objects. Philippe Quesne, the head of Vivarium Studio, explains that the character of Serge creates his remarkable effects from basic materials, “remote-control toys, a laser, some smoke, small devices. I like to work with things that anyone can find in a shop.” Dawson employs even simpler stuff: He renders the moon landing using two lights, a table, and his body. Space Panorama, he says, condenses “all of that thinking, planning, and risk into a small gesture of my fingers.”
Through theatrical alchemy, Dawson can execute a multimillion-dollar endeavor using just his two hands. Does NASA know about this?