Bertolt Brecht is rolling in his grave right now — but only to better see the provocative theater happening at the Public. In doing so, Brecht sees his signature political form of epic theater transmogrified for the 21st century, where the stages are generally bare and hold only dissembled elements of stagecraft. What the audience finds, if only for a fleeting moment, is a reason to care about theater and its expressive power.
Even as Broadway rakes in record-setting millions, innovative theater soldiers on with sparse funding and limited space in a city seemingly determined to outprice it. That is why the Public’s Under the Radar Festival (UTR) is a two-week jewel of a festival, providing a home for experimental performance, if only momentarily.
The festival acts as an international colloquium where artists and audience mingle in the lobby and newly installed reading room (filled with books specifically chosen by UTR participants). Each venue at 425 Lafayette Street presents performances that encapsulate the contemporary moment, circling around popular themes like gender, race, politics, and technology. For all its gymnastics, I took away a different realization from UTR concerning the function of theater today: it is a universe governed by the performers and audience together, a space where we can engage in sublime, personal journeys in the presence of friends and strangers.
Germinal, a production in from Belgium and France, exemplifies what is at the heart of the UTR Festival. Created by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort, the piece is a poststructural take on creation myths. Human consciousness, we are told, spurs from simple phonemes rather than a biblical apple. The piece is quintessentially French; characters mull over Cartesian philosophy, existential identity, and French New Age music, mixing absurdity and insight. The show begins with disorienting bursts of light that finally converge on a conventional black box stage. In their own hermit universe, the characters take to destruction, literally mining the stage for resources, such as sound equipment and a laptop, with a pickaxe. As the destruction continues, the four characters create a dialectic to sort out their world, putting physical objects into the category of things that go “pocpoc” and abstract ideas into a category of things “that do not go pocpoc.” Of course, subcategories abound once the group realizes that curtains go “firfir.” No discovery revolutionizes their world (and ours, I suppose) more than the computer, which functions as the universe’s manual. It turns the stage into a simulacral chatroom, replete with a projection of Windows XP’s signature rolling field background, to which a character exclaims, “How vast! How green!” As the characters roll through wallpaper choices, the digital becomes tangible as pine trees uproariously splinter through the stage floor.
Due to the production’s particular aesthetic and technological finesse, it is unsurprising that Germinal’s creators come from disparate backgrounds such as the visual arts, literature, music, and dance. Neither of them has a conventional theater background. As the performers said in their post-show talkback, Goerger and Defoort’s other productions function more as installations or conferences; Germinal was one of their first major theater pieces. Premiering back in 2013 at the Festival D’Avignon, the duo’s work across visual art, theater, music, and sociology marked them as indie darlings in the theater world. Paradoxically enough, it took three years of logistics and courting for Mark Russel, co-director of UTR, to bring Germinal to the US.
On the homegrown side of things, 600 Highwaymen mounted a production of their Employee of the Year, written and directed by Abigail Browde, which first premiered at the Crossing the Line Festival in 2014. This first-person narration of a woman, Jay, in search of her mother is told by five girls who hand off the tale at random points in the story. Like Germinal, Employee of the Month strips the stage of the flourishes and a too-spunky affect that often inundate the majority of commercial productions explicating a female narrative (such as Legally Blonde the Musical). This pared-down aesthetic allows the viewer to telescope in on the simple choreography of the show, which builds a thematic lexicon between the adult narrative and the upbeat timbre of the children telling it. Through the minimalist, dancelike gestures of these gangly girls, the performance is infused with an undeniable optimism that breaks through an otherwise bleak and gloomy schmaltz. As such, lines admonishing, “Don’t spend all your time chasing your mother’s shadow” are interspersed with pithy songs delivered deadpan. “Life is a mystery,” Candela Cubria sings, “I guess Madonna was right.” Like virtually all of the other offerings at UTR, Employee of the Month believes that laughter is a cathartic tool to bring the audience closer into the world of the stage. These productions avoid the caricature of saturnine experimental theater by tempering harsh messages with comedy, song, and dance.
As the festival continues into the week, theatergoers have the opportunity to enjoy the works of groups like the Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble’s The Art of Luv (Part 1), which uses barely watched YouTube videos as source material, and DarkMatter’s #ItGetsBitter, a dismantling of gender binary conformities and racial disparities within the LGBT equality movement.
The Public’s 12th Annual Under the Radar Festival continues at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette St, East Village, Manhattan) through January 17.