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Under the Radar Festival

Reports on Invincible Summer, A Beautiful View, Dead Set #3, Another You, and Famous Puppet Death Scenes.

Mike Daisey in Invincible Summer
(© Chris Bennion)
[Ed. Note: This is a review roundup of shows in the 3rd annual Under the Radar Festival, presented by the Public Theater.]


Mike Daisey burst onto the New York performance scene in 2001 with 21 Dog Years, his uproarious account of his time spent working for Internet giant With his latest solo performance, Invincible Summer, he once again draws upon his own life for both comic tales and more serious reflections. Seated at a table with only a glass of water and a few pieces of paper containing the writer/performer's notes, Daisey pays obvious homage to Spalding Gray. Even the construction of his monologue, with its focus on the author's own neuroticisms and personal history that opens up to a wider consideration of the world at large, is much like Gray's finest work. However, Daisey's performance persona is his own; his rubbery face is capable of the most hilarious expressions, and while the tone of his work is wry and full of wit, it is less ironic than the manner in which Gray used to speak.

Daisey touches upon numerous subjects, including wedding toasts, the New York City subway system, his parents' divorce, the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, and America's subsequent involvement in the war in Iraq. He has a knack for detailed descriptions and keen observations that provoke laughter of recognition amongst his audience. His stories are often raucously funny, but the solo performer also probes more intense and painful subjects in a compelling manner. He captures the complex and contradictory feelings that many Americans had after 9/11 and isn't afraid of expressing some of his own less-than-politically-correct emotions.


Filled with poignancy, and a longing that is both sad and sweet, Daniel MacIvor's A Beautiful View is a rich two-hander, well performed by Tracy Wright and Caroline Gillis. This meditation on love is presented in a non-linear narrative that often breaks the fourth wall. It follows two women who meet by chance, have a one-night stand, separate, meet again, become friends, and forge a bond that is tested many times during their turbulent relationship. Along the way, the women share witty observations such as "You have to be very organized to be a bisexual" and "crazy lesbians are just like men."

Both actors are terrific, but Wright's droll demeanor is particularly endearing. For most of the intermissionless 70-minute piece, MacIvor -- who also directs -- guides the action at a leisurely yet engaging pace. However, the play comes to an abrupt ending that feels forced and not altogether satisfying.


A scene from Dead Set #3
(© Caden Manson)
There are several stunning moments contained within Dead Set #3, the latest performance piece by director Caden Manson and his company, Big Art Group. The work is a collage-like assemblage of live video, dance, spoken dialogue, and special effects. Much of it is fragmentary, but there are a couple of coherent themes that emerge.

First and foremost is the war on terrorism. Sounds of gunfire and explosions form a large part of Jemma Nelson's excellent sound design. There's also a sequence in which a series of photographs are displayed in rapid-fire succession on the white screens at the back of the performing area. For the most part, they go by too fast to see them clearly, but occasionally the blur comes to rest on a single frame, with the live actors mimicking the action depicted. The aftermath of the subway bombings in London, an abused prisoner at Abu Ghraib, and the war in Iraq are just a few of the images seen.

Another thread within the performance focuses on cannibalism, and particularly a meeting between a man who wants to feast on human meat and another man who wants to be eaten. The encounter is heavily homoerotic, and the entire cast -- consisting of Rebecca Sumner Burgos, Mandy Caughey, David Commander, Ebony Marie Hatchett, Mikeah Ernest Jennings, and Ned Stresen-Reuter -- strip naked and utilize video wizardry to key different actors into a garden environment. Some parts of Dead Set #3 are more compelling than others, but the hard-working cast gives it their all.


"The weird thing about memory is this need to make a coherent narrative out of the scraps of our lives," says Allen Johnson in his autobiographical one-man show, Another You. The writer/performer shares several highly personal stories, including being physically and sexually abused by his father, his high school proclivity to use a vacuum cleaner to suck himself off, being fisted by a female massage therapist, and giving blowjobs to anonymous older men in porno arcades. Johnson delivers it all with a combination of humor and heartfelt yearning.

Interspersed with these personal stories are more philosophical and poetic musings about love and the search for spiritual connection. These segments are less engaging and lack the specificity that makes the more autobiographical material stand out. The piece has a rough edge that is at times charming, while at other moments, it feels like the performance needs further development.


How many ways can a puppet die? Quite a few, as it turns out, as evidenced by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop's Famous Puppet Death Scenes. The Canadian troupe stages 23 short scenes, supposedly drawn from the history of puppetry, but actually crafted by the company. These include "The Ballad of Edward Grue by Samuel Groanswallow," in which a man who likes to dress as a deer gets shot by a hunter and "My Stupid Dad by Sally," which utilizes Fisher Price toys. There's even a scene in French, and another in German. Some are intentionally funny, others quieter and more meditative. A few are just downright bizarre.

The skill evidenced by puppeteers Peter Balkwill, Mitch Craib, Pityu Kenderes, and Judd Palmer is quite considerable, and the multiple environments the company has created are often breathtaking. Cimmeron Meyer's elegant lighting and Mike Rinaldi's gorgeous sound design help to set the mood and tone for each scene, capably directed by Tim Sutherland, with technical direction by Bobby Hall. Still, the show's basic premise wears thin after a while. The company may have come up with a number of ways to show a puppet's death, but they've failed to make it particularly meaningful.

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