The kids are all right—provided your definition of “all right” includes drinking, swearing, screwing, sojourning in Chinese brothels, murdering classmates, and breaking curfew. Happily, such youthful enterprise animates many of the 20 shows at this year’s Under the Radar festival, the annual celebration of experimental theater curated by Mark Russell. A few of the shows—Versus: In the Jungle of Cities, Once and for All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen—feature young performers. (So does John Cassavetes’ Husbands, to its detriment.) Others describe adolescent indiscretions (Jerk) or portray adults acting in a childlike manner (L.A. Party, L’Effet de Serge, Space Panorama).
Once . . . , a performance devised by director Alexander Devriendt, playwright Joeri Smet, and 13 pubescent Belgians, captures—in a manner both poignant and thrilling—the vigor and ambivalence of teenagers. As Lou Reed plays, the cast enters the stage and begins to wreak low-level property damage—fighting, flirting, defacing the floor. One girl removes her underwear, another singes a Barbie doll, two boys assail each other with limp balloons. Then a buzzer sounds and clean-up hurriedly proceeds. The actors then re-enter and repeat the same actions, revealing their seeming spontaneity as the product of choreography and care. It’s a gorgeous metaphor for adolescence, that period in which the promise of adventure and the comfort of conformity painfully collide. The cast replicates the scene several more times—angrily, sexily, druggily—endowing the same sequences with varied emotional hues, re-making the familiar. As one young woman explains in a speech toward the show’s end, “Everything has been done before. But not by me. Not now.”
Bertolt Brecht’s 1927 play In the Jungle of Cities has certainly been done before, though not perhaps by a quartet of young actors in their underwear. This production, by Poland’s Teatr Nowy, pays only cursory attention to Brecht’s themes and plot, focusing instead on R&B and panties. Much of Radoslaw Rychcik’s direction feels like rehearsal room exercises rather than deliberate choices. But the four performers are keen and supple, executing each scene with fearless verve. One can’t say the same of the cast of John Cassavetes’ Husbands, Doris Mirescu’s misconceived and overlong tribute to the seminal ’70s flick about three middle-aged men on a bender. Much of the youthful, untrained corps seem genuinely perplexed as to how they came to be onstage. (Perhaps they, like the steadily evaporating audience, wished they were somewhere else.) Mirescu’s direction is similarly confused: She has videographers trail the live actors, projecting their actions onto a screen behind the stage. The result, like much of the camerawork, is tedious and unfocused.
One might crave a bit of fuzziness in Jerk, an explicit staging of one of Dennis Cooper’s nastier writings. Cooper based his short story on true-crime phenomenon Dean Corll, who, with two teenage accomplices, murdered a score of boys in ’70s Texas. Jerk, directed by Gisèle Vienne and performed by Jonathan Capdevielle, visits one of those teens, David Brooks, as he serves a prison sentence. In jail, he has developed a talent for puppetry and restages his crimes using dolls, stuffed animals, and lewd sound effects. If Capdevielle’s strong French accent makes him less than viable as a Texan teen, he gives a bold, unsparing performance. I may one day forgive him for making a panda bear say, “Did you like it when I cut off your balls?”
An adult enters a teenage wasteland in David Barlow and Phil Soltanoff’s L.A. Party. In this tale of a brief bacchanal, a thirtysomething raw foodist falls off the wagon and into a bevy of Class A substances (and pancakes). While Barlow reads his prose, Ilan Bachrach—a stocky, mustached man—lip-synchs it. A camera films Bachrach, then projects that image onto the face and body of a blindfolded woman in her underwear. (More chicks in underwear. I sense a trend.) This technique provides a visual analogue for the text’s theme of loss of self.
Loss of self also figures in Richard Maxwell’s tricky Ads, a play without live actors that makes use of three-dimensional imaging technology. On an otherwise bare stage, holographic simulacra of a dozen or so people mount a soap box and state what they believe in: love, God, tenor sax, meatballs, etc. Many of the speeches are sanctimonious and a little dopey, but the tech is remarkable. With a slight squint, you might believe a person really stands there (although a technical glitch makes their shoes invisible). Ultimately, the absence of actual human presence makes the event seem hollow—which is, perhaps, the point. Maxwell’s oeuvre comprises a series of negations that questions how people speak, move, and behave onstage by stripping away most theatrical trappings. Making actors disappear seems the logical, if rather chilling, progression.
Conversely, one ought to be very glad for the appearance on a New York stage of Andrew Dawson, a writer, director, performer, and hand model from the U.K. In Space Panorama, Dawson re-creates the Apollo 11 lunar landing, using just his upper body (and an arch recorded soundtrack). Young actors—and much older ones—could learn much from Dawson’s control and precision. With just a flick of his fingers, he can render a rocket launch or contort his face into the lunar landscape. This miniaturist piece is a gloss on toy theater, with Dawson himself as the plaything.
A sense of play also infuses Vivarium Studio’s L’Effet de Serge, a show of almost unendurable charm. Alone in his apartment, Serge (Gaëtan Vourc’h) devises seemingly low-tech effects with store-bought gadgets, such as “Rolling Effect on Music by Handel” or “Laser Effect on Music by John Cage.” Each Sunday, he invites guests to his home, serves them a glass of wine, and performs the results. Vourc’h and creator Philippe Quesne pervade the production with a Gallic insouciance, interrupting moments of high seriousness with a stumble into a door or an ill-timed pizza delivery. As Serge toys with each new object, he communicates how readily the imagination can transform the everyday into the fantastic. It’s a lesson most of us knew as children, when tipped-over furniture or misappropriated clothing could alter the world entirely. Triumphantly, L’Effet de Serge makes one feel like a kid again.