Now in its fourth year, the Under the Radar Festival, running January 9-20, has been gaining an above the radar profile, as several works from past years have either gotten full productions in New York, or have toured the United States. “I’m trying to identify works that would be useful to mainstream theaters, and maybe make them stretch a little bit,” says Mark Russell, who produces the festival along with The Public Theater, where the majority of the events take place.
Some works are full productions, while others are considered workshops. Dael Oerlandersmith is using her show, Stoop Stories, to explore some characters being developed for new pieces, as well as revisiting some of her past monologues. “My people are fringe people; these are the people who don’t quite fit,” she says. “It’s just good to be able to get before an audience and not worry about getting your ass kicked by a reviewer. When the words hit the air, I’ll be able to know how to go back, sit, and write. And of course, I want it to be an entertaining evening, as well.”
The festival has a significant international component, which includes the Minsk-based Belarus Free Theater. “They’re not an authorized theater, and when these guys perform and the authorities find out, they arrest the audience and actors and hold them for hours,” says Russell. Their piece at the Public, Generation Jeans, won’t put audience members at risk of arrest, but it does tell a semi-autobiographical story about living under an oppressive political system.
Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe will be directing his own Terminus, which interweaves three monologues about people thrown into a fantastical world of singing serial killers, avenging angels, and love-sick demons. Russell describes it as “kind of like The Terminator crossed with Paradise Lost.”
Hip-hop theater artists make up a significant portion of the programming. “The Ford Foundation helped us do this project where we interviewed people about what is the next generation of hip-hop, and who needs the exposure,” Russell states. As a result, the festival will be presenting Reggie Watts’ Disinformation, Rha Goddess’ LOW: Meditations Trilogy Part 1, and In Spite of Everything, by The Suicide Kings.
Following a successful run at PS 122 in the fall, Young Jean Lee’s Church will also be presented at Under the Radar. In the piece, the artist transforms her life-long struggle with Christianity into an exuberant church service — complete with a large gospel choir — designed to test the expectations of the religious and non-religious alike. “It’s a beautiful show that I think is saying something risky and new about religion in these times,” says Russell. “I think Young Jean Lee is one of the most important writers we have working right now.”
The Nature Theater of Oklahoma, under the leadership of creators/directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, returns to Under the Radar after having workshopped No Dice at last year’s festival; that show just completed a critically-acclaimed sold-out run produced by Soho Repertory. The company’s new piece, Poetics: A Ballet Brut, is a wordless performance that utilizes a set number of physical gestures whose order was determined by the roll of dice. “It’s more than just random,” says Liska. “Using chance operations is about accepting things that are outside of you, just as we’re taking movements from observations of life around us, people on the street, humanity in general.” Adds Copper: “Everyone in the company read Aristotle’s Poetics while making the piece — that was his big manifesto on what is theater and what does it do. In the same way, this is a bit of a manifesto for us.”
Russell claims that this year’s “secret weapon” that’s sure to be talked about is Brazilian artist Michel Melamed’s Regurgitophagy. “He does this rather provocative Dadaist monologue while hooked up to a machine that gives him an electric shock whenever the audience makes noise,” he states. “So you really have a direct effect on the artist. It’s outrageous, disturbing, and fun.”
One of the most unique events in the festival is Etiquette, created by British experimental theater company Rotozaza and presented by The Foundry Theatre at Veselka Restaurant. The experience is designed for two people who serve as both actors and audience, following pre-recorded instructions on a CD. “A system of synchronized audio over two headphones allows for two very different experiences and perspectives to criss-cross,” says Rotozaza’s Anton Hampton. “If you miss something, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s quite obvious that it only works with your investment — you have to try.” While the 30-minute performance requires participants to both speak and perform certain actions, it’s designed so that the rest of the restaurant patrons may be completely oblivious to what’s going on. “Part of the thrill is the sense of this private experience contrasting vividly with the public surroundings,” says Hampton.
Under the Radar also features other site-specific performances, including small metal objects, wherein the action unfolds amidst the pedestrian traffic of Whitehall Ferry Terminal. “You’re given headphones and you sit in a bank of seats looking out at the commuters,” says Russell. “The actors are embedded within, so it’s going to take you a while to figure out who’s talking.” The piece is presented by Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company, and has previously been performed in shopping malls, train stations, and additional site-specific locations.
“Mark has the courage to bring in things that others may not be willing to take the risk,” says Liska, explaining what makes Under the Radar such a unique and successful festival. Yet, Russell himself maintains that it “still hasn’t hit its full stride yet. Keeping it fresh is always a challenge, and this is our most ambitious so far.”