Responses in Brief to Under the Radar 2013

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As January festival season wraps up, I want to touch on a few of the pieces I’ve caught at the Public’s Under the Radar Festival that I haven’t yet had a chance to.

Belarus Free Theater’s Minsk 2011: A reply to Kathy Acker. This is the fourth show I’ve seen by BFT and in some ways one of the most compelling. The work is actually a sort of half-diptych: the initial piece, an adaptation of Kathy Acker’s Pushcart-winning short story “New York in 1979,” hasn’t been seen outside of Belarus, as I understand it, based on a brief, translated conversation with director Vladimir Shcherban. Inspired by Acker’s compelling depiction of sexual difference, the company produced a work that explicitly discusses sex and sexuality in a Belarussian context–a taboo maintain by social opprobrium as much as political censure.

Like most of the company’s shows I’ve seen, it exists as a sort of collage surrounding the performance of a series of personal narratives, both biographically of the artists as well as those of others interviewed to create the work. The company predictably have received a lot of stellar press, but I think that particularly in the US, their status as dissidents tends to overwhelm the larger reality of the company’s artistry and mission, which has always been broader than simply criticizing the ridiculous dictator Alexander Lukashenka. Minsk 2011, the first show the company developed in exile in London, does a lot to showcase their broader artistic and political mission.

Fleur Elise Noble’s 2 Dimensional Life of Her. This Australian artist’s hour-ish-long piece is as much a time-based installation as it is a performance. Brilliantly and beautifully executed, the piece is primarily achieved through a series of videos projected around the three-dimensional performance space which is entirely constructed of paper. The aesthetic play of piece is all based around–if I were to describe at a high-level–identity in search of form. The main character–Noble herself, I believe–appears as a maid. A cut-out of her shape stands down-left, and begins with her projected on it. Then, the projection “steps off” her cut-out in this place and appears elsewhere through the magic of video. The piece unfolds as a series of transformations: The maid character will walk along the paper-covered back of theater and “clean off” the projected blackness as though washing a dirty window, revealing a new (projected) three dimensional space which later will again become a piece of paper on which images or animation can be sketched (through video). A seemingly realistic room will be revealed to be a tiny cardboard cutout which dramatically burns down. A cast of animated characters will reappear as stop-motion puppets, and the maid herself will eventually “lose” her cut-out within the piece, followed by a completely real-world video of a costumed “cut-out” pursued by the maid through a bustling city. A couple times the performer herself intervenes in the piece by manipulating set pieces, and reveals herself in the flesh toward the end. It’s all beautiful and brilliantly realized, as I already said, but in the end it felt a bit light–a lovely formal exercise but one without a lot of meat to it. Plenty of charm but not overly compelling.

Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times. A co-production with Soho Rep, which runs through Feb. 2, this is probably the most anticipated show of the festival: the first four episodes of the company’s projected ten-part cycle. As with earlier works, the piece is interview based: in this case, a series of ten telephone conversations with the same woman (each episode is one conversation), detailing in meandering fashion the story of her life. The transcripts are performed by the cast verbatim in Nature Theater’s exaggerated fashion. I’m going to return to this one later, as I’m seeing it out-of-order and haven’t seen all of it yet, and I certainly can’t comment on the durational aspect of it, which many people will this Sunday during the marathon of all four parts. (I’m curious whether that adds to or detracts from the experience for people.) Personally, from what I’ve seen so far, it’s both personally compelling as well as raising a couple questions.

I am myself a product of the suburbs, so I get many of the anecdotes and stories on a sort of gut-level: the piece projects back onto me, an experience heightened by the performance’s distance from and refusal to inhabit the content of the narrative in anything approaching a mimetic fashion. That’s the brilliance of Nature Theater’s approach: It produces, for me at least, a deeply personal reflection upon the story, which unfolds in disharmony with the action onstage. On the other hand, the story is deeply “American” in the same sort of way that a most conventional plays are, all suburban and white and class being a matter of social relations and so on. So the question that’s still kicking around my brain–particularly given the company’s embrace by European programmers, without whose support I doubt something this ambitious would be possible–is whether it’s stylistically something that lets the theater have its cake and eat it too. But that’s a whole knotted up ball of yarn I can’t imagine untangling at the moment, and gets us well beyond the piece itself, which is on the whole (from what I’ve seen) a lovely and compelling concoction that’s inventive enough to keep audiences engaged while trusting its performers to make the text speak for itself.

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