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UTR Review: O Jardim, A Supposedly Fun Thing, and Ike At Night

Photo by Otávio Dantas

Created by Brazil’s Companhia Hiato and written and directed by Leonardo Moreira, O Jardim playfully experiments with theatrical structure with vibrant and emotionally stirring results. At the play’s opening, the cast dissect the stage into three spaces, lined with large cardboard box structures which, along with an expansive grass turf, perform the function of set. The spaces form a diamond-like shape, each side facing a different section of the audience. Three scenes are performed simultaneously, one in each of the spaces, and rotate so that by the end, we’ve seen all three scenes albeit in different order. Each scene depicts one generation in a Brazilian family struggling to preserve its legacy and its past ideals about love, family, success, and youth. Continue reading “UTR Review: O Jardim, A Supposedly Fun Thing, and Ike At Night”

Our Picks for the Public Theater’s Under The Radar Festival

The Under the Radar Festival, which recruits the best new theater projects from around the world and houses them at The Public Theater for two event-filled weeks, is officially underway and we are thrilled to be covering some of the festival’s most anticipated shows. For theater artists and non-practitioners alike, the festival is a chance to discover new styles and structures being explored outside our community’s borders and fuel our local creative momentum. It’s an exciting chance to see international artists exchange their work and even to discover what ties the global theater community together. This is the third year that we’ve covered UTR, and we are always delightfully surprised to find how much we can learn about our own life and culture from foreign artists.

Tickets for UTR’s events are only $20-25. Learn more about these works and other offerings at UTR’s Program.

Photo by Ligia Jardim

O Jardim (Brazil’s Companhia Hiato )

Many of this year’s shows are experimenting with structure and style to playfully reflect on memory and its effects on history, identity, and relationships. O Jardim is perhaps the most innovative of the works, using a complex and thrillingly exact trio of scenes which play simultaneously to three separate sections of the audience. Each scene portrays a different generation of one family and how subsequent generations experience the recollected lives of their elders.

Photo by Mitch Dean

The Orpheus Variations (Deconstructive Theatre Collective)

We reviewed this piece back when it premiered at HERE Arts Center and were frankly astounded by it. It accomplishes a magnificent feat– it films the play as it is performed and project the astounding and quite unexpected results on a screen behind the actors. A beautiful, simple, and smart adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Deconstructive Theatre Collective manages to create a multi-layered piece that uses the modal differences between live performance and film to reflect on memory, loss, and love. Catch it tonight (1/10) at La MaMa. It’s sure to be worthwhile!

 

The Triumph of Fame (Switzerland’s Marie-Caroline Hominal)

Choreographer Marie-Caroline Hominal creates an individual theatrical piece, bringing an audience of one to a discreet backstage location with a piece that blends the boundaries between spectator and performer. Each encounter lasts only 15 minutes and incorporates various performance mediums surrounding the text of Petrarch’s “i Trionfi.” If you ever wanted more out of the one-on-ones in Sleep No More, The Triumph of Fame should definitely be on your list.

Photo Courtesy of JACK

Ike at Night (USA’s Ikechukwu Ufomadu)

Late-night talk show hosts are a dime a dozen (aren’t they all white men named Jimmy at this point?). Which is why Ufomadu’s take on the talk-show format, straight from a sold-out run in Brooklyn,  should be a fascinating, fresh, and entertaining phenomenon to watch!

Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Stan’s Cafe (UK’s The Cardinals)

Three cardinals travel the world on a mission to broaden biblical knowledge using puppet theater. But when their puppets go missing, they must improvise their own show, comically covering biblical scenes and Middle East relationships dating from the Crusades. Given the fact that world-Muslim relationships are constantly in the news (most recently under the microscope of the Charlie Hebdo attacks), we’re sure this piece will only gain relevancy and humor with time.

Photo Credit: Kevin Yatarola

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1900s-1950s (USA’s Taylor Mac)

Taylor Mac is something of a theater prophet. His performance in Good Person of Szechwan first turned us on to his glorious message of a theater of inclusion, community, and gender-bending elegance. This concert is only part of a 24-hour concert series presenting music from every decade in the United States’s history as a nation. Mac’s experimentation with long-form theater aims to bring audiences together with a uniquely vulnerable physical experience. Not only should it be a great experiment in long-form theater, but also it should be incredibly fun to see Mac’s joyous celebration of music.

 

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!

Under the Radar: LIFE AND TIMES

We round off our UTR coverage with the most unique and most ambitious play of the the 2013 lineup: Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times Marathon, a ten-hour play comprised of four episodes taken verbatim from one director’s phone call conversation with a cast member to recount her life story. And yes, it starts with day one.

Oh Dear Lord, these tracksuits.

Sara

Life and Times is truly a celebration of the everyday, mundane life. The first energetic, musical episode retracing the subject’s first 6 (ish) years of life, is just simply exuberant. It rejoices in the trivial details and reminiscences of childhood, whether it be the calming energy of a father, the tauntings of a brother, playing hooky from swim lessons, or a mean substitute teacher who causes one to wet one’s pants. What is it about one person’s personal, small experiences, which may seem so unimportant or too subjective to be inconsequential, that makes everyone suddenly moved to connect and remember their own memories, even if they are vastly different from those of the subject? It doesn’t make sense. But it happens in Life and Times. Never do you resentfully wish that someone with a more interesting life was interviewed, some kind of celebrity or something. Interesting is not at stake here. Neither is celebrity. We’re here to see the greatness, the adventure, in the everyday.

When we say verbatim, we mean verbatim. Every “um,” “erm,” “so,” “like,” etc. is reproduced, even emphasized at times. Sometimes an “um” is given its own note, harmony, and crescendo. It’s all part of the poetry of our subject’s (and our own) speech. It’s fantastic. I love my “ums” and “likes” now! In many ways, the marathon is also a case study in theatrical adaptation and conventions. I’d like to hear if some people felt like there were two voices in the piece- that of the woman on the phone generously telling her life story (imagined in our heads from reading the captions) and that of the artists. For me, the woman on the phone speaks quickly, nervously, a distance of years between her and her memories. The artists speak immediately, affectionately, deliberately, and slowly. The difference between the two illuminates what we do when do make a narrative out of someone’s real-life experiences.

I also endorse captioned performances like those in Life and Times for EVERY SHOW EVER becauseimnotagoodlistener

Episodes 1 and 2 are balanced in their joy and sincerity, striking a genuine chord with the audience. Episodes 3 and 4, on the other hand, are much messier (starkly different from the careful musical performances of 1 and 2). It feels a lot less fluid, a lot less reflective, and a lot more tedious. Yes, the “murder mystery” Agatha Christie-style shtick is fun and lends itself well to the subject’s more confessional teenage years. But the same plodding mood, the same melodramatic parodies for 2 and a half hours? Perhaps throw in some more genre-benders for 3 & 4, you know, instead of waiting for 5 and 6? Maybe some farce, some social manners, some Arthur Miller, some Harold Pinter, some Sam Beckett? You’ve got all of theater history to choose from.

Also, I hate to say this, but just because we’re taking the subject’s conversation verbatim doesn’t mean we must include ALL of it, or even do it chronologically. I could not wait to hear our subject’s memories on some more mature experiences-her first heartbreak, her first interview, maybe even her work as an artist. Alas, episode 4 ends at age 18.  Word on the street is that Nature Theater plans to make over a dozen episodes to bring forth all the pieces of their subject’s memories. Because editing is nowhere to be found on their mission statement.

Episodes 3 and 4. Where’s Poirot when you need him?

Kate

So um Life and Times attempts to capture the idiosyncrasies of, like, human speech… and turn oral storytelling into, um, a theatrical event.And it’s brilliant. UTR’s plays experiment with the idea of what theatre is and can be. This production is one of the main events of the Under the Radar Festival, and for good reason. Life and Times is huge both in length and in concept. The four episodes of Life and Times currently span about ten hours as a marathon (with more to come). And it’s mission to relate a telephone conversation to the audience–verbatim–is no easy task. The crafting of dialogue in the theatre is a language of its own. It has to establish the dramatic conflict  and drive the story.

At first, Life and Times doesn’t seem to have any narrative arc, as the novelty of the “real speech” takes time getting used to. The cast doesn’t shy away from the inconsistent vulgarities of human speech–they revel in them. But in those “mistakes” come brilliance. The hesitation before an embarrassing childhood memory. The nervous laughter hiding the fear of an abusive father. The unexpected interruptions where she wonders–and we all wonder–if our stories are actually worth being told.The constant musicality of Episodes 1 and 2 were welcome, as they help give the narrative an emotional life. I was also taken with the “anti-choreography” of awkward limbs and grace-less plies that illustrated everything from solitude to sexual desire. Episodes 3 and 4 can use more development, as the English cozy mystery genre sometimes muted the actors’ performances.

Life and Times was my first experience with marathon theatre, and it was a fun one. The intermissions were accompanied by a dinner and dessert break (featuring awesome salted brownies). It made me think of the possibilities of theatre being an all-day event, where the audience could respond even more to the stories brought to them. I also wondered if the company members could utilize those intermissions in a more creative way, particularly with the ensemble members. Even after almost half-a-day of Life and Times, I still wanted more, and I look forward to future episodes, wacky genres, and “ums.”

To be continued…

UNDER THE RADAR FESTIVAL: 2 Dimensional Life of Her


Part art installation, part short film, and part one woman show, 2 Dimensional Life of Her is an exciting piece that challenges our concept of theatre. The space itself looks like a paper wonderland: huge pieces of paper line the walls, and a blank canvas is propped up on an easel. A paper cut-out of a woman stands on a chair. Shredded pieces of paper litter the stage floor.

It begins with the image of a woman (Fleur Elise Noble) projected onto the paper cut-out. The first surprise is when the woman begins to move. The next surprise is when the woman leaves the cut-out, her footsteps echoing throughout the theatre. She proceeds to clean the huge pieces of paper, revealing even more surprises and scenes that are scrubbed, torn, or scribbled into existence. Filmed drawings and puppetry give the visual life of the scenes, while clear sound effects make them heard. 2 Dimensional Life of Her follows the woman as she finds her paper cut-out and engages with her artistic creations.

2 Dimensional Life of Her has some of the best multimedia I have ever seen. Noble, who created the concept and design, deftly handles all aspects of the piece, from her rebellious puppets to the interplay of the filmed images and happenings on stage. I especially enjoyed her use of contrast with light and darkness.

But the real magic happens when Noble herself enters the stage and directly addresses her creations—and the audience. This is when theatre happens, as she creates a human connection between herself and her art. Until her entrance, the piece felt more like an art exhibition or a film viewing rather than a theatrical experience. One instance of this ambivalence occurs when a group of puppets “enter” the paper backdrop, armed with a movie camera. They have a conversation illustrated with text bubbles:

“Is this a movie?”

“No, it appears we have an audience!”

“They’re in the way.”

The artwork doesn’t know what it is yet, but I would love to see what happens when the artist comes to a more definitive creation.

Other UTR reviews:  C’est Du Chinois and Hollow Roots.

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