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Under the Radar, the Public Theater’s annual festival of new work, turned the ripe old age of fourteen this year. If the name has become less literal, given its lineup of major American and international artists, it is still the place to spend one helter-skelter day at the theater: seeing your favorite company’s latest, or checking out adventurous imports from abroad. The main program is complemented by concerts (Erin Markey was a highlight), and by the Incoming! works-in-progress series (look out for final versions of Modesto Flako Jimenez’s ¡Oye! For My Dear Brooklyn and harunalee’s Memory Retrograde). Over the course of this year’s twelve-day run (January 4-15), the main-slate artists’ explorations ranged widely: from the life of Lester Bangs, in Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s How to Be a Rock Critic, to Afro-futurist sci-fi, in Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. But a handful of festival offerings suggested that artists are thinking hard about some tough, basic kinds of relationships: intimate encounters; nationhood and global relations; and the overlapping convergences of real life with artistic work.
Pursuit of Happiness, the latest from multimedia maximalists Nature Theater of Oklahoma, puts the company’s trademark silliness (odd accents, hilariously outdated stereotypes) to serious use, probing the abysmal state of America’s reputation in the world. Set in a frontier-style saloon, the piece begins by juxtaposing the clarity of a Western — good guys vs. bad guys — with the far murkier morals of real-life family drama. An ensemble of gap-toothed gunslinger types discuss their hopes and dreams, then whip out pistols, unprovoked. But Nature Theater’s larger subject is international in scope. One of the cowboys, requesting artistic feedback from his drinking buddies, launches into a lengthy blow-by-blow of his new screenplay, the epic saga of a performance troupe who tour to Baghdad during the Iraq war. The performers orchestrate a virtuosic dance-off between NATO and Iraqi fighters, but are naively dismayed that they fail to halt the conflict. (“We’ve done more harm than good!” one American exclaims. No kidding.) Pursuit is a self-aware fable about art and American hubris, an obliquely autobiographical meditation on Nature Theater’s own journey, and an obsessively good time. Here’s hoping it tours.
While Nature Theater was exploring America’s vexed national identity, Havana’s Teatro El Público parsed the connection between selfhood and nationhood in Antigonón, a poetry recital by way of outrageous costume parade. Four performers declaim the words of, among others, José Martí, celebrated poet of Cuban independence, while traipsing on- and offstage to don their next spectacular, DIY-style ensemble: a gold-beaded apron, a beer-can headdress, a multitiered wedding gown covering the right side of the performer’s body and leaving her left half nude. Shades of Antigone eventually emerge as performers told the story of late-19th-century Cuban revolutionaries Antonio Maceo Grajales, killed by the Spanish, and Francisco Gomez Toro, who died to stay with Maceo’s body. (The Greek tragedy begins with a conflict over the honorable burial of Antigone’s brother, also killed in battle.) Poetry, choreography, and fashion show mingled powerfully, adding up to an outcry of patriotic pain, and a testament to the deep connections between personal experience and national life.
Sometimes relationships are easier to parse in closeup. Two festival offerings — U.K. drag artist Dickie Beau’s Re-Member Me, and Thunderstorm 2.0, from Beijing-based Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental — used cameras and screens to consider the politics of intimacy. Thunderstorm 2.0, an updated take on Cao Yu’s early-20th-century classic, examines the intersection of sexual conquest and economic inequality through the story of an entitled businessman who seduces and abandons two poor women. These events unfold in a suite of domestic rooms, contained upstage like a giant diorama, while live-feed video projects the characters’ gestures and activity onto a giant screen. A pair of musicians — who also voice all of the dialogue, drawing on traditional Chinese staging techniques — discuss the play’s relevance, which feels undiminished today. “Who’s more powerful, Under the Radar or Weinstein?” they drily inquire.
The most important relationship in Re-Member Me is between an actor and his character — Hamlet, to specific, as Beau explores the character’s power as a vehicle for the experiences of gay men in the profoundly homophobic U.K. of not so many decades ago. After describing a panoply of famous Hamlets and their directors (John Gielgud, Peter Hall), the piece comes into focus as a eulogy for actor Ian Charleson (best known for starring in Chariots of Fire), who played Hamlet while he was dying of AIDS in 1990. Alone onstage, Beau constructs and deconstructs a human figure from plastic mannequin parts. Above him, multiple iterations of his own head give voice to memories of Charleson and his heartbreaking, uncanny last performance. Re-Member Me is memory theater, offering a deeply affecting interpretation of the doomed Danish prince, and a testament to the ways art and life can overlap.
If Beau gently probed the convergence of theatrical character and a performer’s private self, Andrew Schneider’s After used technical effects — disorienting sounds, sudden light shifts — to imagine the experience of intimate bonds. Returning to the January scene after taking it by storm in 2015 with the Obie-winning YOUARENOWHERE, Schneider continued operating in his high-tech, philosophy-heavy mold. But while YOUARENOWHERE was a nearly-solo project parsing the contours of loneliness, After — created with a collaborative ensemble — is more about being with others, romantically and communally. Between long blackouts, hazy visual effects, and oblique, imagistic monologues, Schneider appears with a scene partner (Alicia ayo-Ohs). They speak, and try to listen, but rarely hear one another. Communication is difficult stuff — and where better than the theater, a space of watching and listening, to practice: watching more closely, listening harder. Luckily, this year’s artists helped show us the way.