Special Reports

5 Under the Radar Shows You Need to Track in 2019

The Public Theater’s unconventional convention returns for another year.

Meow Meow will perform in The Public Theater's 15th Annual Under the Radar Festival.
Meow Meow will perform in The Public Theater's 15th Annual Under the Radar Festival.
(© David Smith)

Thanks to the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival, every New Year in the theater opens with a shot across the bow of convention. This year is no different, according to festival director Mark Russell. He has planned a lineup of shows that challenge our notions of what theater is and boldly imagine what it can be in the future. Here are the five most intriguing selections from this year's Under the Radar:

1. The Cold Record
You should never pass up an opportunity to see the Rude Mechs, one of the most inventive and daring troupes in America. In The Cold Record, Kirk Lynn (one of the Austin-based company's artistic directors) tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who tries to break a strange record: most days leaving school with a fever. He's also obsessed with punk rock, and wants to share a mix tape with you. Billed as a "secret performance," this solo show is part of a series of portable plays that the Rude Mechs developed after losing their longtime venue, the Off Center. Appropriately, it will be performed in an upstairs classroom at the theater's Lafayette Street home that is usually off limits to the public. Russell enthuses, "It's like getting a chance to see Sam Shepard tell you a story."

2. [50/50] old school animation
"This might be the most dangerous piece we're doing," says Russell, who gingerly dances around any spoilers to this stealthy confessional piece that plunges the depths of human cruelty, and leaves you contemplating the existence of real evil. One wouldn't immediately expect that when encountering the nonthreatening presence of Julia Mounsey, the solo performer who created the piece with Peter Mills Weiss. Still, Russell warns, "The people who saw it in last year's incoming series told me, 'That was the most upsetting piece I've seen. I can't get it out of my head.'" This one is not for the faint of heart, but it's a must-see for those who view theatergoing as an extreme sport.

3. As Far as My Fingertips Take Me
New York audiences are familiar with solo performers, but what about solo audiences? Creator Tania El Khoury and artist-performer Basel Zaraa invite one viewer per 15-minute performance to have an intimate encounter with a refugee. The singular audience member listens to the prerecorded voice of Zaraa (who was born a Palestinian refugee in Syria) as their hands touch through a hole in the wall. Over the course of the performance, Zaraa draws an original work of art on the viewer's arm. Russell considers this piece the heart of the festival, so it will take place on the mezzanine overlooking the Public's lobby. Only 150 people will get to experience it firsthand, but anyone at the Public is free to look in.

4. Minefield
There are plenty of plays about war, but how many of them feature actual veterans of war in the cast? Argentine writer-director Lola Arias has cast veterans from both sides of the 1982 Falkland War ("Guerra de las Malvinas" to the Argentinians) in this groundbreaking work that navigates the minefield between documentary and theater, fact and fiction. Not only do these conscripted actors recount their memories of the war, but they also perform together in a band. You'll want to catch it while you can. Russell notes, "These are the real people and this may be one of the last times they do this show together."

5. Meow Meow
The Australian-born international cabaret superstar makes a rare New York appearance to kick off the festival on January 2. It may be cold outside, but expect it to be sizzling hot inside Joe's Pub as Meow Meow performs a set of Weill, Brecht, Brel, Radiohead, and some original numbers written just for her. "When I get a chance to put on a rock star like Meow Meow, I take it," says Russell. Meow Meow's final performance will be at midnight on Saturday, January 5, a date that should be circled for every cabaret aficionado in the city.