Under the Radar 2013

Jan 16, 2013 by

Welcome to 2013, everyone!

This year my resolution is to blog at least once a week. 

Technically I have already broken that resolution, but I will strive to do better as the year progresses.  Besides, you don’t want to start out with a bunch of momentum on a resolution and then burn out, right?  Right.  So anyway, I feel like one of the things that keeps me from writing sometimes is that I don’t think anyone’s interested in the events of my life unless I can package them in some clever way.  For instance, I feel compelled to do things like write a list of what I’ve learned about marriage after six months, instead of chronicling the first six months of my marriage.  But going forward, I feel there should be room on this blog for both kinds of entries, and herewith begins the first of what I hope will be many more personal, less gimmicky writings.  But I promise not to get all gross, y’all.

I’ve just returned from my first two trips of the year (already, yeah, I know).  The first was three days in Chicago workshopping a newish play called Even Longer and Farther Away.  I love workshopping, and this session was particularly fruitful and fun, in spite of the fact that I had food poisoning on day 3.

Then I headed straight to New York City for the 2013 Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theatre.

I attended this event last year with a pal from Chicago, and we had such a great time that we decided to do it again.  The festival bills itself as “tracking new theatre” from all over the world; I can attest that I’ve seen some of the best AND the worst theatre of my life on its stages, which I think speaks to its eclectic and risky curation.  At 5 shows for $75, you can’t top it in terms of affordable variety.  There were lots of other folks at the festival and it continues for another 5 days, and last year I didn’t recap it because I figured there wasn’t really a good reason to do so.  Who cares what I thought about what I saw?  But this year, in the spirit of celebrating those aspects of my life that make it so wonderful and strange, I thought why not?  Not everyone gets to see 6 shows in 48 hours from all over the world.  This is a cool thing.  So here is how I felt about the coolness.

April Matthis in Hollow Roots

Hollow Roots — USA

by Christina Anderson, Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, Performed by April Matthis

UTR’s Description

In Hollow Roots, a woman traverses a nameless urban landscape plagued by a question: can a person of color have a “neutral narrative”? A spare and intimate setting evolves into a vivid world painted in detailed observations and marked by memories, music, maps, and circumstance. Tapping into the rich and complicated genre of one person plays by writers such as Wallace Shawn and Spalding Grey, Christina Anderson (Good Goods), director Lileana Blain-Cruz and performer April Matthis (Lear, The Sound and The Fury) ask the question – can someone live a life unaffected by one’s race or gender?

My Take

I’m writing a one-woman show (for someone else to perform) right now, so I was very interested to see this piece.  I don’t normally like one-person plays because they don’t engage me.  I usually think they have an overall lack of relationship, too much repetition, and low stakes.  I find myself much more intrigued by what the actor is doing as a performer than the actual story unfolding in front of me.  All that said, last year at COIL I saw a one-woman play called Chimera that was one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve ever witnessed.  Unfortunately, Hollow Roots didn’t do it for me.  It seemed in the beginning that there would be a lot of audience engagement, but the rest of the narrative didn’t really allow for it.  The conceit is compelling and the acting superb, but I found the script to be repetitious.  I wouldn’t have minded that so much if the ending had been strong, but I felt like the play deflated.  The stakes had been set, the objective clear, and then the play kind of dissolved toward a conclusion in the last few minutes.  I can’t say more without giving away the end.  Overall, it was… fine.  That’s pretty much my assessment.

Ben Williams (I think) in Arguendo

Arguendo (Work in Progress) — USA

Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service, Directed by John Collins

UTR’s Description

One of New York’s most highly acclaimed theater companies, Elevator Repair Service (Gatz, The Sound and the Fury [April Seventh, 1928]) presents their latest work in progress – Arguendo. In Barnes v. Glen Theatre, a 1991 First Amendment case brought by a group of go-go dancers, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court debate whether dancing naked in a strip club is an exercise of artistic expression or a crime. In Arguendo, ERS presents the case’s oral argument, verbatim, revealing a compelling intellectual struggle and the court’s often-absurd sense of humor.

My Take

Hoo-boy.  This was a SNOOZEFEST.  Literally — I fell asleep 4 times in 105 minutes, and we saw a 1pm show.  There were moments that were poignant, and funny, and interesting, and captivating.  And then there was A LOT of people reading the transcript of a court case.  I understand that this company, Elevator Repair Service, makes a point of performing unabridged texts, but this thing is screaming for an editor.  The unabridged text of The Great Gatsby (which they they performed as Gatz) has movement, and drama, and heart.  The unabridged text of a trial decided 22 years ago, even if it’s a Supreme Court case, even if it’s about naked ladies fighting for the right to stay naked, does not have those things.  And one character’s boob popping unceremoniously out of her shirt in the last moment of the show isn’t enough to save it.  I understand that this was a workshop performance and the piece is still in process, but I also heard from other audience members that cutting the source text is not a step that ERS is likely to take.  Bummer.  I’ll just go back to sleep, then.  Probably my least favorite show of the festival.

Nucheng Lu, Siping Yao, Aaron Chun Fai Wan, Lei Wang and Qifeng Shang in C'est du Chinois

C’est du Chinois — Hungary/Netherlands

Directed by Edit Kaldor

UTR’s Description

“Thank you for your interest to learn Mandarin. It is a good investment of your time.” Meet the Yao and Lu families from Shanghai, determined to reinvent themselves in a new country. The only language they speak is Mandarin, but that will not stand in the way of a productive exchange with their audience. In this highly original production, the performers teach us a basic comprehension of the Mandarin language, just enough to decipher their unfolding story. Starting at zero, the performers and the audience create something together – the possibility of a personal encounter, an intimate meeting.

My Take

I watched a play in Mandarin and understood it!!  No subtitles, no supertitles, no glossary in the program.  This was one of my two favorite plays of the ones we saw.  The conceit is original and amazing — the family on stage teaches the audience basic vocabulary using props, then basic verbs using demonstrations, and you’re off like a shot from there.  As the play moves along, the inner life of the characters can’t help but creep into the language lesson they’re giving, and a story about displacement, and fear, and hope, and anger, and family unfolds before us in a foreign tongue that somehow feels intimate and familiar.  As an audience member and a playwright, I couldn’t help but marvel at how the construction of this piece (and some mighty fine acting) made my access to the story possible.  I won’t pretend I didn’t get lost a few times, but I was fine with it.  In my mind, it mirrored the experience of the characters on stage, who have been in the US for only eight months and often feel confused and left out themselves.  I adored this play, top to bottom.


A 20th Century Abridged Concert Of The History Of Popular Music — USA

Taylor Mac in A 20th Century Abridged Concert Of The History Of Popular Music

Written and performed by Taylor Mac

UTR’s Description

Over the next two years a bedazzled creature will build a community by singing 24 concerts of the last 24 decades of popular music. Ultimately all 24 concerts will be stitched together culminating in a 24-hour long extravaganza. To help prepare for the big concert, Taylor Mac and band will be performing an abridged version: music from the 20th century.  One night only!

My Take

Well, this was fun and odd.  It was staged as a concert with LOTS of talking, plenty of jokes, and a hearty helping of social activism.  The theatre was large and packed, and people all around me were buzzing about seeing Taylor Mac live and in person.  I had never heard of him before that night, but there was such a hubbub around him from everyone at the festival, not to mention a huge waiting list for the show, that I felt privileged to have a seat.  And then the very first strains of the first song started, and they belonged to Tori Amos’s “Precious Things.”  And then a large band and a man in shimmery, shiny drag took the stage, and I knew where I was.  One song from each decade of the 20th century was sung; each had been picked for a very strong reason, and created a particular dialogue between performer and audience.  Some lovely performance art moments happened with the crowd, invited but certainly not predicted by Taylor Mac.  I enjoyed myself immensely, but I do have a few bones to pick.  For starters, this concert was a workshop of just one part of a larger show that Mac is working on, a 24-hour concert that will explore (among other themes) how imperfection creates community.  It all sounds very exciting, but he kept referring to “the real show” throughout the night in a way that made it seem like we, the “not real” audience, were being dismissed.  Secondly, the mood between audience and performer became downright hostile on a couple of occasions, which is fine when the performer is deliberately making a point to provoke, but just feels uncomfortable when you’re being scolded for not laughing hard enough at one of his jokes.  And finally, the show ran long.  At one point in the night, Mac told us he feels it’s part of his aesthetic to go over his stated running time, which, fine, good for you if that means 10 or 15 minutes.  But this concert ran over by an hour and 10 minutes.  It felt like a final “up yours” to all the people that Mac had professed to dislike over the course of the show — administrators, people who live in Brooklyn, people with kids.  My friend and I missed the show we were supposed to see after Mac’s, but luckily the kind folks at The Public let us trade in those useless tickets for some to a different show the next day.  In the end, I just kept reminding myself of Taylor Mac’s mantra, which he pronounced time and time again: “This is performance art.  Everything you’re feeling is correct.”

2 Dimensional Life of Her

2 Dimensional Life of Her — Australia

Concept, Direction, Set Design, and Performance by Fleur Elise Noble

UTR’s Description

An enchanting mix of drawing, animation, puppetry, projection and paper, 2 Dimensional Life of Her is a richly imagined performance installation set in an artist’s studio. Fleur Elise Noble creates a parallel world in which everything thought to be flat becomes something else. In this illusionary, captivating and cheeky work, visual tensions build and realities pile up until the artist loses control of her creations and absolutely anything becomes possible…

My Take

I don’t know if I would call this theatre.  It was certainly a beautiful exploration of projection, film, and puppetry that intrigued my mind.  I didn’t really connect with it on an emotional level, however.  The live performer is only onstage for about 5 of the show’s 70 minutes, and the rest of the story is told via projections on a variety of surfaces around the stage, sometimes inviting communication between various projections in different places.  I didn’t really pick up on a true narrative until about the last 10 minutes, though I did enjoy that narrative and the end of the piece a great deal.  It’s a conundrum of a thing: the story is told in film, but you have to be in a very specific space to experience that story (by which I mean you couldn’t just watch it on your TV at home).  This was the first show we saw and I liked it well enough, but again I don’t know if it isn’t a gallery piece.  I’m just not sure it’s theatre, but I enjoy whatever it is.


Michael Cyril Creighton and Hannah Bos in Blood Play

Blood Play — USA

Written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, Directed and developed by Oliver Butler

UTR’s Description

In the tranquil Chicago suburbs in the early 1950’s, the kids are away camping with their Jr. Cherokee’s Troop, and a string of coincidences yields a spontaneous grown-up party. In the basement of a brand-new ranch house, exotic cocktails like “Rapupu Sours” are sampled, games like “Bee Pee Bo” are played and new friends like Jeep, the door-to-door photographer, are made. But things are happening that no one is talking about and something is stirring underground. A darkly comic thriller of post-war verve and pre-adolescent disquiet.

My Take

This!  This!  This was probably the most exciting, probably the best show that we saw this year.  At turns genuinely funny and creepy-as-SHIT, I spent the entire duration on the edge of my seat.  It was so touching, so real, and yet mythological in scope.  Plus, it’s set in Skokie.  I mean… The design and effects were compelling and seemingly effortless — an egg is cracked and blood oozes out, a monster awakes and the roots of a dead tree rustle, and then a huge boom of thunder shakes the theatre and Chelsea jumps six inches out of her seat.  Claps to the sound designer, M.L. Dogg, for some outstanding work.  The Debate Society, the Brooklyn-based company who created this piece, has further lifted up devised work in my esteem.  I couldn’t stop thinking about the play for hours afterward, which was really cool and also maybe not the greatest thing psychologically, since we saw it late in the evening.  Stunning.


I will add here that I also saw my good pal Madison Dirks on Broadway in a fantastically agile and brutal production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Go see it.

I saw the original production in Chicago, but the Broadway transfer is even better.  And Tracy Letts told me he liked my bag (the first time I met him, he said he liked my headband).  Yours truly has Pulitzer-approved style.

Amy Morton, Tracy Letts, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coonin Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


1 Comment

  1. Jean

    What a variety! Sounds like a great experience!

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