Theater

Wintry Mix: Will January’s Theater Festivals Warm You Up?

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I’m of two minds about the abundance of new performances every January, when five small-scale
festivals run simultaneously downtown. With events across the city and hundreds of presenters from around the world checking out the premieres, these showcases jolt serious energy into an “experimental” scene that has felt dormant and complacent since New York’s 1980s postmodern heyday.

On the other hand, it’s depressing to see progressive theater and performance justified by packaging. It reminds me of American cities that have a designated Cultural District with banners hanging from lampposts. If a metropolis needs a special zone for culture and has to advertise where it is, what does that say about the reach and vibrancy of the local art scene? More and more, of course, New York resembles those other burgs, with a sanitized city center focused on consumers. Can an aggressive and adventurous theater community survive without
succumbing to the same generic standards, to propriety and hidden biases?

In the festivals’ opening week, I saw few, if any, shows that could be called political — a jarring discrepancy given the dismal and urgent crises that surround us. It’s tedious to keep measuring today’s distance from the transformative and engaged 1980s Lower East Side performance scene. But it’s also hard to deny what’s absent in these sometimes detached selections: commentary, confrontation, metaphor.

True, transgressions, conceptual
boldness, and an element of adventure are to be found at American Realness (Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street; 866-811-4111, americanrealness.com). Can we talk about the naked lumberjack women in erotic
action mode, making love over logs and branches in Supernatural? Continually repositioning themselves into hypermasculine postures, Simone Aughterlony and Antonija Livingstone chopped, smacked, and thumped wood with graphic, sensuous method. Experimental sound artist Hahn Rowe crinkled foil into a microphone and overlaid electronic rhythms as the women built to their climax, evocatively turning the outdoors inside out.

Choreographer-performer Ivo Dimchev cast aspersions on the whole theater-making enterprise in Fest, a brilliant tongue-in-cheek fantasia in which a
performance artist named Ivo noisily
performs cunnilingus on a curator, then fellates a stage technician to get his show, er, mounted at an indifferent Danish festival. Later the mood turns desperate when the artist suffers a mortal wound from a humorless critic’s “intervention”…but lives to endure a soul-killing post-show talk. Over at the Wild Project’s Special
Effects
(thewildproject.com), which concluded January 10, Adrienne Truscott offered Asking for It, a vertiginous evening of rape jokes told with her lower half
exposed. It made for a stand-up act to
remember, sharpest when Truscott made dangerous allusions to assault as opposed to the history of comedy.

By those standards, other offerings look spirited but tame. COIL (various locations; 212-352-3101, ps122.org/coil-2015) presented Catch, a pleasant program of short performances that took off when
Larissa Velez-Jackson took the stage (with Tyler Ashley and Talya Epstein) in stars, stripes, and rainbows, celebrating “theatrical failure” and proclaiming feminism “the only true religion.” The evening ended with GRANDMA’s pleasant
un-tribute to New York, with giant Elmos tearing through skyline cutouts.

Two standout shows (both at COIL) dealt meaningfully with technology and identity. Sorry Robot, performer Mike
Iveson’s auspicious playwriting debut,
uses four performers and a piano to
imagine an approaching dystopia where robots, boosted by an “emotional upgrade,” begin to apply human feelings while turning their masters into robots. The revue short-circuits in a few patchy places but has a sense of fun and a delightfully off-kilter wit; especially hilarious is
a vignette in which robots demonstrate their humanity in a cooking class.

Another COIL premiere, Andrew Schneider’s YOUARENOWHERE, induces a sexy sensory overload: one man’s high-speed existential rumination on Craigslist “Missed Connections” and quantum mechanics. A former Wooster Group company member, Schneider makes an alluring performer, commanding the stage as he struts shirtless with wearable sensors mapping sound and lights to his movements. As a
director, his calculating manipulations of the performance space as expressive extensions of an overheating mind — I can’t give away the theatrical sleights of hand — make this show one of the festival season’s most exciting and rigorous.

At Under the Radar (various locations; 212-967-7555, undertheradarfestival.com),
an Argentinean production written and
directed by Mariano Pensotti takes a prosaic look at filmmakers whose lives intertwine with their works. Cineastas is a sort of
duplex drama, unfolding on an upper and lower level simultaneously — a device that allows Pensotti to constantly rotate his small cast in multiple roles. Unfortunately he locks the narrative in a cloying voiceover structure: One actor stands with a microphone and describes what’s happening in a scene, while others illustrate it. The effect is stubbornly literal. When these overlapping soap operas conclude, we’re left with the not-very-surprising observation that artists’ lives overlap with their fictional creations.

Leonardo Moreira’s more delicate Brazilian drama O Jardim (The Garden) divides the stage into three sections with walls of cardboard boxes, as several generations of
a family share memories (based on the
ensemble’s own) and sort through mementos. Despite its stationary staging and a
considerable language barrier in translation, O Jardim betrays a tender heart,
showing how memory struggles against
objective reality and the aging body.

In a way, COIL’s installation show,
presented by Temporary Distortion, best encapsulates New York theater’s artistic psyche. My Voice Has an Echo in It, a “durational” performance at Ideal Glass Gallery (22 East 2nd Street), played continuously from 6 p.m. till midnight for five straight nights. The players made music inside a freestanding soundproof room about the length of a trailer. Spectators could watch through two-way mirrors and listen through headphones, but the band couldn’t see or hear anything from the world outside. The group’s creative sanctum is both supercool and completely insular, gesturing to a contemporary scene that often seems to jam obliviously in a hall of mirrors.

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