This is Part 1 of 2 reports from New York's experimental festivals.
One reason to love New York’s unofficial experimental festival season (a.k.a. the first three weeks of January, a.k.a. APAP-a-palooza, a.k.a. Show-ganza) is that it changes the city. Prompted by the annual presence of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) convention—and hoping to be picked up by the touring circuit—all the theatre and dance peacocks in town put on their showiest display.
Art-nuts can just…amble through. We saunter from the Public Theater (Under the Radar festival) to Abrons Arts Center and the Chocolate Factory (American Realness), from HERE (Prototype) to the Brick (Exponential Theater Festival) to Performance Space New York (First Nations Dialogues). Everything is decorated, colorful, full of the curating glitterati. For a brief moment, our trashy winter streets are the gardens at Versailles.
For my first few days of Festival Time, I went heavy on the Public’s Under the Radar festival, where it was possible to ping-pong through the lobby from one staircase to another, racing up and down to catch shows. The best show I’ve seen so far is one I’ve seen and loved before: the eerie, somehow literary [50/50] old school animation. Co-creators Julia Mounsey and Peter Mills Weiss have made something that looks extremely simple in a pair of linked monologues, the first performed by Mounsey with dead-eyed sangfroid, the second by the wonderful comedienne Mo Fry Pasic. The second woman is, we come to learn, the prey of the first, who carefully explains her “project”: to damage her friend.
I’ve seen this show in various venues, and each time it has slowed my blood. Mounsey’s catlike chill—“It’s so easy to hurt someone,” she says, “just by refusing to help them”—causes a kind of paralyzed, primal dread in me. 50/50is only 50 minutes long, and I worry presenters who have come “shopping” will think it’s a snack, not a meal. But I’ve had to consume it three times now, and believe me—it stays with you.
It was also grand to see the frothy meringue Minor Character again, especially since this weirdo version of Uncle Vanya, from ensemble New Saloon, has gotten even better since it was in Brooklyn last year. Under the careful direction of Morgan Green, the company inverts the idea of “double casting” by having performers triple up to simultaneously perform a single role. (So we watch a swarm of Astrovs, a gaggle of Vanyas, a flock of Nannies.) As before, David Greenspan’s whining Serebryakov was a glittering comic creation, though this time it was easier to see how the younger actors are imitating his distinct mannerisms and vocal emphases. Other standouts worth a look: Madeline Wise as a slyly erotic Astrov and Caitlin Morris as a Sonya so keen she seems to absorb all the other Sonyas into her own powerful version.
Rather less successful was the return of the talented Chicago-based group Manual Cinema, who performed their elaborate shadow-puppet Frankenstein. Manual Cinema has made some wonderful pieces (Ada/Ava, Lula Del Ray) using their cunning mix of overhead projector “fade-ins” and silhouette play, but here they bolted on a bunch of additional techniques (silent-film style video, a three-dimensional bunraku puppet), which cluttered their usually elegant aesthetic.
If you needed a bit of woman-power uplift, you could see Ifeoma Fafunwa’s Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True, which uses serial storytelling techniques to hammer home its feminist message. Each member of Fafunwa’s company of Nigerian actresses tells a story, sings a song, or enacts a skit about womanhood: a village woman caught in a brutal marriage, a frisky churchgoer mistaking her orgasm for Satan, a klatch of gossipers eager to call other women sluts and witches. The company (particularly dancer-actor Omonor, the superb Debbie Ohiri, and a heartbreaking Odenike) offers a gallery of impressive performers, and the piece is strong as political performance—dogged, repetitive, clear.
Up at the tippy-top of the theatre, tucked away in a classroom filled with chairs (various) and beers (PBR and Miller Lite), The Cold Record consisted of the Rude Mechs’ Kirk Lynn performing the impossible: a gentle punk show. Sitting just a foot or two from us, he solicited suggestions of our favorite punk songs, then played them while asking why they meant something to us. Inevitably he would draw our attention to the music’s sweetness. Did you know the Ramones were trying to sound like the Beach Boys? Or that there’s love contained in those punk lyrics that only sound like rage? That love spurred the second section of the show, a vivid and hectic monologue spoken by what seems to be Lynn’s own adolescent self. Though it’s just a little slip of a show, Lynn’s tribute to the solace he finds in music operates like a balm, smoothed out over the anguish of others and even our own younger selves.
Increasingly the festivals haven’t had a lock on our attention, though. This year some of the coolest things to see have been APAP-focused but festival-free. Over at the Tank on 36th Street, Erin Ortman is directing Rodrigo Nogueira’s Real, a charming chamber work, deliberately structured like a fugue. Thanks to designers Ao Li (set) and Kia Rogers (lights), the tiny space glows with rich color, which seems to trap the actors like insects in amber. There are two intertwining dramas: that of a modern woman who starts hearing music out of the past, and of a boy in the 1930s who defies his father and starts having visions of the future. The play’s melodrama (in both senses of the word) could use a slightly lighter bow, but Gabriela Garcia (as a friend with a foot in both timelines) is doing precise and beautiful work which deserves to be seen.
And God, was it good to see Radiohole again. Those masters of design-forward experimental mayhem mounted Now Serving at their new space at Westbeth, which they’d transformed into a Lynchian dinner theatre. I was in that space recently, and I’m pretty sure I don’t remember the glossy black doors, the glam-doll receptionists behind speaking tubes, the spooky black-and-red dining room which sometimes erupted with its own mess. Some audience members—brave or foolish, I couldn’t decide—were actually seated at the haunted dining table, where they were pelted with toast, serenaded by electric violin, and then assaulted by a man in a giant frog’s head, who sacrificed himself to be the second course. After all the theatrical grazing I’d been doing during the day, it was good to finish it off with something really, thoroughly, irresponsibly rich. It felt like drinking a glass of port that came with nightmares already attached.
Next: In our second installment, I’ll talk about shows at Performance Space New York, the second weekend of Under the Radar, and I’ll head out into the Exponential Fest, which is as big as Brooklyn itself.