"I'm looking for something that will surprise me," said Mark Russell, Director of the Public Theater's annual Under the Radar Festival. "Something that resonates with contemporary times. [Something that] gets me in the gut or makes me feel uncomfortable. And, I'm looking for people that answer the question, ‘Why do theater now?'"
Currently in its ninth season, the twelve-day Under the Radar Festival, running January 9-20, brings new theater from across the world to the Public's Lafayette Street digs. Spanning the globe from America to Iran to Belarus, many of this year's selections share a common theme, Russell said. "A lot of shows this year are about outliers," he told us.
That would certainly explain the return of the acclaimed Belarus Free Theatre, an organization that is literally on the run in its dictatorial home country. "They set the standard for bravery in theater," Russell said of the group, which has performed in the festival in past years to great acclaim. "We've tried our best to make them a home here at the Public Theater, and we're supporting them as artists. Because what they need right now is sustenance."
Similarly, this year's festival welcomes the return of Australia's Back to Back Theatre, an ensemble that creates work with actors who have developmental disabilities. "With Aspergers, Down syndrome, they're people that you might avoid in the street," Russell said. In their native Australia, people with disabilities are still considered ‘the other,' the company's artistic manifesto notes. With that in mind, they've created Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, which explores prejudice and power within Nazi Germany, the Hindu god Ganesh, the right to speak, and the right to create theater. While Russell usually refrains to refrain from picking favorites, when pressed on what people should see if they can only afford one show, it's this. "It's a very special performance that embraces all this festival is about this year."
While Under the Radar is synonymous with "experimental theater," Russell contends that that loaded moniker isn't something to be afraid of. "I'm not into making this stuff mysterious," he said. "Anybody can approach this work if you open your heart to it…[I]f you come to the festival and see a bunch of shows, you don't have to see [any more] experimental theater for the rest of the year!"
With that sentiment in mind, we hand-picked five shows from this year's roster. These, as they say, are the ones to watch.
Dates: January 9-20
Country of Origin: United States of America
What's really lurking just outside the basement rec room? That's the question simmering under the surface of Blood Play, the well-regarded dark-thriller-comedy by the Brooklyn-based Debate Society. Selling out its initial run at the 60-seat Bushwick Starr, the work has been given a new, slightly revised life for Under the Radar. Grab a cocktail, settle in for some party games, and strap yourself in for a seriously unsettling trip back to the 1950's.
C'est du Chinois
Dates: January 9-16
Country of Origin: Hungary/Netherlands
Learn the language that over a Billion people are now speaking in C'est du Chinois, Netherlands-based director Edit Kaldor's tale of a Chinese immigrant family determined to adjust to life in a new country. Part family drama and part Mandarin lesson (the show is performed completely in Chinese without any supertitles), C'est du Chinois tells the audience a story, stopping along the way to highlight key Mandarin words and phrases. The show promises, "The performers teach us a basic comprehension of the Mandarin language, just enough to decipher their unfolding story." Why not buy a ticket and test their claim out? It's kind of like Muzzy Live!, but in Chinese -- and less terrifying.
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich
Dates: January 9-14
Country of Origin: Australia
In a new production of the Australia-based Back to Back Theatre, two potentially incendiary worlds collide as the elephant-headed god Ganesh travels to Nazi Germany to reclaim the Swastika, which is actually an ancient Hindu symbol. Created by people who have developmental disabilities, the work not only explores this storyline, but the feelings of the actors themselves as they question whether or not they have the right to tell this tale.
Hamlet, Prince of Grief
Dates: January 10-20
Country of Origin: Iran
When will you have your next opportunity to see experimental theater from Iran? Hamlet, Prince of Grief comes to us from Tehran, where it was performed by the critically-acclaimed Leev Theater Group. Afshin Hashemi plays Shakespeare's quintessential saddo in this one man tour-de-force. Using only household objects and children's toys, Hashemi tells the story of Hamlet in under 30 minutes. Don't worry if you don't speak Farsi: the show features English supertitles. And really, isn't the one-man Shakespearean mental breakdown an international form of communication at this point?
Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker
Dates: January 15-20
Country of Origin: Belarus/United Kingdom
Any opportunity to see a production by Belarus Free Theatre is one worth taking. After past Under the Radar outings including Zone of Silence, Discover Love, and the truly astounding Being Harold Pinter, the group is now offering Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, an exploration of sexuality within a dictatorship. In a place where fear is the mandate and a gay pride parade is cruelly stopped, is a lap dance merely erotic or pornographic?