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Opera, Iran, and Reggie Watts: The Under the Radar Festival Brings a World of Performance to the Public

Here are five shows definitely worth seeing at this year's festival.

For more than a decade, the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival has lured the top experimental theater artists and companies to a place few would willingly dare to tread in January: New York City. For two (likely frigid) weeks, works from places as disparate as Brazil, Switzerland, and Iran will heat up stages around the city as part of the festival.

"For us, it's really important to keep engaging with work that might seem daunting to bring over from a bureaucratic standpoint," said the festival's codirector Meiyin Wang when I asked her about the complications of transferring entire productions across borders. Along with Mark Russell, Wang spends much of her year scouting out companies from around the globe to participate in Under the Radar.

Here are the shows that caught our attention this year.


Mariano Pensotti's Cineastas features a bi-level stage.
(© Carlos Furman)

Described as a "filmic drama," this play comes from Argentinean writer/director Mariano Pensotti. It's performed on a split stage, with the lives of four filmmakers portrayed on the lower level while the movies they dream up play out on the upper level. Amazingly, these two universes are created using only five actors. "It's like watching a novel unfold on stage in the best way," says Wang. This is Pensotti's second time at the festival following 2012's El Pasado Es Un Animal Grotesco.

Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower: the Concert Version

Toshi Reagon presents a concert version of her new opera, Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower, as part of the Under the Radar Festival.
(© Kevin Yatarola)

Using a cast of 10, Joe's Pub regular Toshi Reagon presents a concert version of her new opera adaptation of Octavia E. Butler's science-fiction novel Parable of the Sower. Set in an apocalyptic future, the story follows a young woman who possesses the ability to empathically feel the emotions of those around her. "Toshi Reagon has created these incredible songs about finding hope at the end of the world," said Wang. Parable of the Sower is a collaboration between Reagon and her mother, Denise Johnson.


Mohammad Hassan Madjooni and Mahin Sadri star in Timeloss, written and directed by Amir Reza Koohestani, at the Public Theater.
(© Mani Lotfizadeh)

In 2004, Iranian writer/director Amir Reza Koohestani made an international splash with Dance on Glasses, a play about the breakup of a young Tehrani couple. Dating outside of marriage is officially frowned upon by the Islamic Republic, but is relatively widespread among a younger generation of upwardly mobile Iranians. Koohestani's piece exposed this cultural shift in a country many outsiders view as unwaveringly conservative. Ten years later, Koohestani repurposes that story with Timeloss, which has two older actors (also a separated couple) providing the voiceovers for a recording of that earlier work. "You're always trying to find out if they're talking live or overdubbing the recorded piece," Wang said. It's like speaking Farsi between two mirrors facing each other.

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1900-1950s

Taylor Mac is the creator and performer of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, presented as part of the Under the Radar Festival at New York Live Arts.
(© Ves Pitts)

Multitalented performer Taylor Mac is attempting something unprecedented: an epic 24-hour piece charting the development of American popular music over the last 240 years. At this year's festival he presents six of those decades, the 1900s-1950s. While most of the shows will only present about half of the material, a special six-hour presentation on January 25 will do the whole thing (that's an hour per decade). "It's the longest he has performed," said Wang. Show up and see how Mac does it.

Reggie Watts: Audio Abramović

Reggie Watts is the creator and performer of Audio Abramović at the Public Theater.
(© Paul Bloomfield)

Reggie Watts is well known in music and comedy circles for his disorienting and hilarious solo shows. He's about to be even better known once he takes over as the band leader for CBS' The Late Late Show, alongside its new host, Tony winner James Corden. Before that happens, you should really take this opportunity to have a personal audience with him: Like a musical Marina Abramović, Watts is inviting audience members to sit across from him, one by one, as he composes songs just for them. "It's very rare to sit across from a stranger and experience something joyful together," said Wang. Best of all, it's completely free!