This is part 2 of a series covering this year's festivals. Part 1 is here.
It’s not January anymore, which means that it’s not Experimental Theater Festival Season anymore. In fact most of the festivals wrapped up more than two weeks ago, but, the Exponential Festival goes into February…so we’re still going. Honestly it’s a bit weird, seeing festival shows without that frantic compression of the festival crush. For one thing, you aren’t allowed to do that dramatic sigh of exhaustion at people, demonstrating in one breath that you go hard for theatre, so you can’t possibly be expected to answer your emails.
Now we’re just living life, with theatre in it.
At the risk of sounding like a grumpy crank (I am a grumpy crank), it was a slightly disappointing January. Not because there was a drop-off in quality, but because two big systemic changes made 2019’s festival time lesser than in years before. First, there’s no more COIL Festival. Performance Space New York (née P.S. 122) gave its up proprietary festival, which left the month feeling pretty lopsided. PSNY did host a few shows—I saw Mariaa Randall’s quasi-workshop Footwork/Technique and niv Acosta and Fannie Sosa’s Choir of the Slain there—but it was a smattering of productions rather than the art deluge of the past.
The second shift was the decentralization of the dance-focused American Realness festival. A change in administration at its old home, the Abrons Arts Center, seems to have prompted that festival’s partial departure—there were still shows happening there, but not with the superpacked density of years past. Realness shows happened all over the city rather than jammed into the Abrons warren; this made them harder to binge. Since I’ve always felt festival season means binging, I stayed where I could see the most, which meant spending another weekend around the Public for the second tranche of Under the Radar shows.
Every year there’s one show that makes me text all my friends to try to corral them into seeing it. This time I got out the lasso for Lola Arias’s Minefield, which is another of that brilliant Argentinian director’s documentary theatre works. Veterans from the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War—three Brits, three Argentinians—tell us about their experiences, while Arias has them insert some lo-fi spectacle, like images on an overhead projector, drag burlesque (Maggie Thatcher does not come off well), and a bit of rock ’n’ roll. It was both a rich investigation of a piece of particularly ugly history and a very careful portrait of the men’s own still clearly traumatized minds.
Under the Radar put Minefield up at NYU’s Skirball Center, an absurdly huge barn of a theatre, which worried me. Would it ruin the show’s intimate scale? Luckily the sheer roar of the thing—at several points the men strap on guitars and roll out a drumset—managed to fill up the space’s yawning cavern.
Over at the Public proper, Evolution of a Sonero was much milder. Flaco Navaja’s standup concert was built out of two kinds of inter-song patter: his own Nuyorican autobiography and a kind of self-effacing lec-dem on the components of salsa, referencing greats like Héctor Lavoe and Rubén Blades. Backed by a tremendous band, the Razor Blades, he sang a few pieces—some of his own beatbox-inflected composition, some standards—in a bid for sonero status himself, and the sweetness and humility with which he treated his own inevitable shortcomings slowly became part of his journey towards true manhood.
Next to that gentleness, the violently beautiful puppetry/projection work of Plexus Polaire’s Chambre Noir was a dash of acid, right in the eyes. A single woman, Yngvild Aspeli, used a life-sized puppet to play Valerie Solanas (the woman who shot Andy Warhol), Valerie’s va-va-voom mother, and horrifying stepfather—sometimes simultaneously. Nearby, in what looked like a deejay’s booth, percussionist Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen contributed to Guro Skumsnes Moe’s electro-groove score. With just some glittering bead curtains and projections that look like a herd of neon horses galloping straight at the audience, the two women made a terrifying, dark, seductive environment that was one part Old New York, one part a mind in distress.
Meanwhile the peripatetic Brooklyn-based Exponential Festival seemed to be everywhere, all of the time. As noted above, it’s still going on as I write; maybe it will be going on when our grandchildren are old. The sheer vigor of production is energizing. In Bay Ridge I saw a triple-feature of short works: Woof Nova’s Microcosmitor, Shuga-Pie Supreme’s Cowboy, and Title:Point’s Sleeping Car Porters. The most complete of these still in-development works was Cowboy, in which a Roomba wearing a cowboy hat zoomed around a fake Western landscape. We could hear its “thoughts” via a voiceover written by Gracie Gardner, but even without that, you could tell that the dear little thing was desperate for contact. It kept whirring over to people’s feet in the front row, bumping against them, looking for connection. Go home and hug your vacuum cleaners, people.
Exponential also programmed choreographer Lisa Fagan’s Red Carrots, a dance-theatre piece that was the most completely delightful thing I saw in the festivals. It was dada lite, with dancers crawling around whispering things we couldn’t quite hear, throwing vegetables around, and doing monologues that were mostly suspicious commentaries on how everyone else around them was doing. It was a chopped-up four-woman portrait of a very familiar feeling: Does everyone else know what’s going on?
Appropriately, it was the last festival show I saw. Because does everyone else know what’s going on? Maybe I’ll figure it out next year.