Special Reports

7 Under the Radar Shows You Need to Know About in 2018

The Public Theater’s annual festival of experimental work returns to heat up your January.

The future is now at the Public Theater, where Under the Radar Festival director Mark Russell is busily preparing another January showcase of the best of the best in avant-garde theater. These are the shows and companies that will have a major impact on the art of theater in the coming years, and you can see their latest work at Under the Radar. Here's our list of the seven most promising entries in the 2018 festival:

The cast of Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon's opera adaptation of Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower.
The cast of Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon's opera adaptation of Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower.
(© Toshi Reagon)

1. Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower
Climate change and wealth inequality have led to a complete collapse in society, with small gated communities fending for themselves in an increasingly violent world. This is America in the 2020s as envisioned by Afrofuturist author Octavia E. Butler in her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, which is now an opera by singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon. Reagon presented a concert version of the show as part of Under the Radar 2015. This fully realized production in the Newman Theater is the largest thing Under the Radar has ever attempted. Russell describes the piece as "the heart of the festival," and compares it to Hamilton in scope and musical power. "It is about survival in an America descending into tribalism," he says, making a not-too-veiled reference to Butler's unnerving prescience.

2. Antigonón: Un Contingente Épico
Making its Under the Radar debut, Havana's provocative Teatro El Público takes on the Greek tragedy of Antigone in an effort to bury some of Cuba's own heroic myths, stories that have long been used in service to tyranny. "All of the performers in this show have the heat of Grace Jones," Russel raves, "It's so fierce." The long-awaited arrival of Teatro El Público in the States is undoubtedly tied to the recent rapprochement in U.S.-Cuba relations, a thaw that threatens to freeze over once again. It's safe to say that most New Yorkers have never seen a Cuban theater company and may not have an opportunity to do so again anytime soon, so this a must-see.

3. Margarete
Fans of Alison S.M. Kobayashi ever-extending Say Something Bunny! will definitely want to check this one out. Director Janek Turkowski uses a series of 8mm films he discovered in a flea market near the German-Polish border to reconstruct the life of their subject, Margarete Ruhbe. She lived through World War II and Communism (many of the films document her trips to tourist destinations in the former Soviet Union), but major global events take a backseat to the life of one woman. This intimate documentary piece will be presented to only 12 audience members at a time, so it's like we're watching someone's home movies. Concerning the trend toward documentary work, Russell speculates, "There's so much fantasy in the world at the moment that we're hungry for real stories about real people."

4. Re-Member Me
In the same documentary vein, lip-sync artist Dickie Beau takes on the Everest of the Shakespeare canon: Hamlet. Specifically, he tells the story of Ian Charleson's celebrated performance of the role in 1989 at London's National Theatre, which occurred just months before the actor's death. Charleson was brought onto the production last minute to replace Daniel Day-Lewis, who left the stage one night after he thought he saw his actual dead father. Using original audio, Beau channels the people in and around the theater for that fateful performance.

5. Thunderstorm 2.0
Acclaimed director Wang Chong takes one of the most important plays of in Chinese theater and reimagines it in the home of a Beijing official in the 1990s. The play is performed by Chong's Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental, the risk-taking company that produced the Chinese language premiere of Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. This is the first time that Under the Radar has hosted a company from mainland China. Russell enthuses, "This will give you a sense of what it is really like to be young in China today."

6. The Hendrix Project
Roger Guenveur Smith and CalArts Center for New Performance imagine what it looked like inside the legendary Manhattan rock club Fillmore East on New Year's Eve, 1969. That's when Jimi Hendrix and his electronic blues trio, Band of Gypsys, gave an extraordinary concert that resulted in a live album that was only released in 1999. Instead of re-creating the stage at Fillmore East, however, the troupe focuses on an upper balcony and the Hendrix fans within. "Think of it as Pina Bausch meets Jimi Hendrix," says Russell.

7. Pursuit of Happiness
Nature Theater of Oklahoma (a perennial Under the Radar favorite) collaborates with the Slovenian dance company EnKnapGroup to create this highly physical take on the American dream and its discontents. The show borrows tropes from Hollywood Westerns to get to the heart of our national obsession with the rugged individual. "There's this wild section about a dance company going to Iraq to finished off ISIS in an assault powered by Red Bull," says Russell, adding, "It's really funny and also quite poignant." What more could you want from experimental dance theater?