the public theater

Under the Radar 2014: The Record

600 Highwaymen’s The Record has earned rave reviews from the New York Times and also capped off my night of theater-binging. Billed as ‘part theater, part dance, part group hallucination – vivid human assembly on an epic scale,’ the piece brings together 45 people who interact with each other for 61 minutes on a bare wooden stage topped with a billowing white sheet.

I hesitate to call the 45 people in the show ‘actors’ or ‘dancers’ because they’re really neither. Even the show page’s description of them as ‘strangers’ feels wrong. As creators Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone explain in a talk-back session, they cast the show using friends and co-workers, some of whom also brought their families along. Also, the people in the show are decidedly not dancers. One is a heavily pregnant woman, another an elderly man who kind of reminded me of Filch from the Harry Potter, and there are several children. It really is a ‘record’ of people of different ages, sizes, races, and class. And there isn’t really much in the way of dance moves either. There’s plenty of running, standing, posing, and hand motions, and probably the most coordinated moment of the piece is when the actors line up in two lines, face each other, and run quickly towards each other.

The cast of the Record

This is part of the reason why I left feeling like I had been somewhat misled by The Record‘s description. I expected either of two things: 1) this would be a movement-filled dance piece about modern life and they way we interact with each other or 2) the 45 people would literally be ‘strangers,’ having just met before the show, and somehow they’d be able to make a comprehensive from close to no experience or training (which Silverstone explained in the talk-back was the original inspiration for the show).

The Record does have elements of the first expectation. The show’s movement mimics the way that we often move about our daily lives. We rush from point to point, constantly surrounded by people, often making little marks on their lives (a service transaction between customer and employee, for example, or taking a seat on the subway that someone else really wanted), but we hardly ever acknowledge each other’s existence. We continue to act independently. And sometimes our paths are intercepted by someone else, if only briefly. The Record aims to display this type of movement, but also to defy it. The cast continuously stop in their tracks to stare out at the audience, making us aware of each other, acknowledging out presence, and provoking us into some type of forged community.

But while the idea behind The Record is provocative, I hardly felt engaged with the piece. There was little to keep me excited or interested in the piece once its aim was clear. The only unifying part of the show was the overwhelming communal feeling from the audience (or at least the people around) that was hoping for something more. And while Christopher Isherwood’s sublime experience of the show, that it opens us to the awareness that we share our lives with millions of people, makes sense to me, I can’t say it was similarly felt.

Of course, you, dear reader, may see for yourself and catch The Record before UTR ends on Sunday.

Under the Radar 2014: Feast

Most of the UTR brochures I see prominently feature a photo of Andrew Ondrejcak’s Feast. It’s the one with the gold-gilded people sitting at a stark table looking ready to devour someone.

Cara Francis, Yuki Kawahisa, Jason Robert Winfield, and Jenn Dees in Feast

Good times.

The photo is adequate in conveying the tone of the show. It’s frivolous, it’s decadent, it’s even malicious at times. It’s also ostensibly about food.  Lots and lots of food. Every character groans and aches for food.  One character even thanks a long list of her favorite foods in her suicide speech. And yet none ever appears on their table. They slurp, they smack, they chew at the air.

What the photo doesn’t show is the only actual food in the show. A fish-monger (Peter Cullen) stands at the side of the stage, a faint spotlight revealing how he prepares the fish. Slowly slicing, shaving off the scales, de-boning, and cleaning the edible meat, his process is silent and takes up the majority of the 75-minute play. He speaks only once, singing a verse about his work. Then, a stagehand (actually, it’s Ondrejcak) clears the fish-monger’s table, dumps the entire fish, good parts and bad, into a bucket, and sets a new fish on the table. The one person actually doing anything in the play (is it the proletariat? the working man?) is decidedly working in futility.

Meanwhile, the four gilded people sit at their table, which stands about fifteen feet in the air, with their king (Reg E Cathy), a diseased man in a t-shirt and jeans with dried blood stains on his collar from coughing into it. Feast is inspired by the biblical story of King Belshazzar of Babylon, who held one last indulgent feast with his concubines while God enables the collapse of his empire. Ondrejcak intersperses his original dialogue with short verses from Handel’s 1744 Belshazzar opera, which are humorously lip-synched by the cast.

Feast is an interesting exploration of man’s tendency towards excess. The concubines’ bodies work against themselves. They find both pleasure and suffering in their indulgences, and can never satisfy their feelings of emptiness. As one concubine repeatedly states, “the world is just too much, yet not enough.” It’s an inherent contradiction that many of us often feel  under different circumstances (I certainly do) and this feast is just one embodiment of the world’s towering anxieties. The play is also a treasure trove of humorous anecdotes about food, sex, and bodily functions, and there are great one-liners distributed throughout, such as “It’s all I can think about when I’m thinking about thinking about things.” I think that one is about food…it’s a safe enough bet.

By the end, I didn’t feel like all these great elements came together for a united reflection on play’s message. What Ondrejcak is criticizing and what he’s proposing as a solution are evasive, and he saves himself from politicizing its meaning. The play closes with the king speaking, his last line (is it the last of his life?) states that we must change the way we think about what is beautiful. Perhaps, if we say kindness, compassion, and humility as things of beauty instead of professionally plated food, jewel-encrusted cups, and flattering dresses, perhaps we wouldn’t have to strive for so much and achieve so little.

Feast plays through 1/19 at The Public.

Under the Radar 2014: BigMouth

I spent my Sunday at The Public Theater, seeing as many Under the Radar shows as I could possibly fit into one day. I got up to three. It was exactly the boost of adrenaline needed after a crummy post-holiday week. It’s exactly what the Under the Radar Festival is all about in the first place– giving the New York theater community a reviving boost by showcasing some of the world’s most provocative, thoughtful, and progressive pieces.

Valentijn Dhaenens in BigMouth

One of the most anticipated shows in the lineup this year is BigMouth, a one-man show by Belgian theater collective SKaGeN in which creator Valentijn Dhaenens performs selections from some of the world’s most memorable, most controversial, and most influential speeches. These range from Socrates’ defense speech to modern-day pundit rants from the likes of Anne Coulter. Dhaenens orders his speeches not in chronological order but in more meaningful ways to enhance thematic connections, stylistic differences, or the evolution/persistence of particular ideas. The best example of this is the simultaneous reciting of Joseph Goebbel’s 1945 to Nazi citizens about wartime moderation, and General Patton’s 1945 speech to his troops.  As Dhaenens seamlessly alternates between Goebbels’ composed, cool austerity and Patton’s bombastic volatility, the speeches’ differences and shocking similarities seep through. Many of the speeches were given in wartime and so the propaganda and the consequences of war feature prominently in the show. Xenophobia and ‘other-ness’ are also explored, particularly in recitations from more contemporary leaders.

The set is comprised of several microphones set on a long table and a chalkboard where the speakers and dates of the speech are listed. In a way, the chalkboard is appropriate– the show has a bit of a didactic feel to it, so be prepared to learn. Many of the speeches are well-known, but some I had never heard of, like King Baudouin of Belgium’s renunciation of his political power when his Parliament decriminalized abortion, were just as fascinating. Dhaenens’ performance raises many questions of the role of leaders, how they use rhetoric to embody cultural values, and how speeches can overtly say the same thing but mean opposite things to opposing factions.

Dhaenens is an incredibly engaging and versatile artist and manages to take the audience’s attention by the reins without a fight for the 90-minute duration of the show. In addition to his powerhouse voice and charisma (and never mind that he performs the speeches in their original languages where possible so that Dutch, German, French, and several types of accented English all feature in the show), Dhaenens collaborates with the sound technician to create musical loops and remixes as bridges between speeches.

Catch BigMouth at The Public’s UTR Festival through January 18!

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