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6 Under the Radar Shows You Need to Track in 2017

The Public Theater's annual festival of innovative work kicks it into high gear.

Laura Osnes will lead the cast of Blueprint Specials in this year's Under the Radar Festival.
(© Tricia Baron)

Having hosted the off-Broadway productions of Fun Home and Hamilton, the Public Theater is a breeding ground for what is hot onstage. Every January, the Public's Under the Radar Festival offers a sneak peek at the cutting edge of the cutting edge: the experimental work whose impact will only resonate on the commercial stage years down the road. That means this is your chance to be in the know before the rest of the crowd. We spoke with festival director Mark Russell about what they have in store for this year and came away with these 6 highlights:


1. Time of Women
Imagine what it would be like to live in a country where theater is illegal unless it is approved by the government. That is the case in Belarus, where the renegade Belarus Free Theatre holds its performances in constantly changing venues that are only revealed to the audience right before the show. The company has a special relationship with Under the Radar and it's always worth seeing them when they sneak off to New York, but this year they plan to give audiences a special treat by re-creating one of their secret house performances in the intimate Shop Theatre at Tisch School of the Arts. The show tells the story of three women who were imprisoned for their activism in the wake of the fraudulent 2010 reelection of Alexander Lukashenko. Russell saw the show in Minsk and reports, "The actors are so close to you. It feels like being in a Bergman movie."


2. Gardens Speak
"This is one of the most powerful experiences I've felt in the theater," says Russell. That may be because it's all tragically real. During the early years of the Syrian uprising, the Assad regime prohibited the burial of activists and protesters killed by the government, so their families buried them in their home gardens. London and Beirut-based artist Tania El Khoury has collected their stories and presented them in this theatrical installation, where the gardens literally tell the tale. As the terrible Syrian Civil War grinds to its bloody conclusion, this seems like the right time to remember how things got here: A peaceful movement for democratic reform was militarized by a brutal, power-hungry dictator. While the regime regularly smears the 2011 protesters as "terrorists," this moving piece speaks the truth.


3. Hundred Days
This is the story of how Abigail and Shaun Bengson met and fell in love. It is also about how that love led to a palpable fear of death. With direction by Anne Kauffman (A Life), Hundred Days is told through the Bengson's folk-punk music. Abigail, Shaun, and their band perform live, making this event feel like a concert with a plot. "There's a lot of new work that is straddling the line between cabaret and theater," Russell observes. "It combines the spontaneity of a concert and the strength of being able to tell a larger story through theater."


Audiences wander the Egyptian wing of the Brooklyn museum in Top Secret International (State 1).
(© Gabriela Neeb)

4. Top Secret International (State 1)
German theater-makers Rimini Protokoll describe this immersive spy thriller as "an algorithmic-based interactive theater experience." Online shopping, traffic lights, and our Facebook newsfeed are all based on algorithms now, so why not drama? The company uses sophisticated Bluetooth technology to track audience members and trigger plot moments as we wander the Egyptian wing of the Brooklyn Museum. Russell explains the location: "A Museum is a natural place for a spy to do a drop or meet someone. The audience will be mingling with the visitors to the museum, so you won't know who is in the audience and who is not." This is your chance to feel what it is like to be a real spy.


5. Blueprint Specials
Under the Radar has spread out all over the city this year, but this show has the most exciting venue: the hanger deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Conceived and produced by Waterwell, Blueprint Specials is a remounting of Broadway-style musicals that were commissioned by the U.S. Army during World War II as a way to boost morale in the field. It features previously unknown work penned by then-Private Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls). According to Russell, "The Waterwell guys found this stuff in dust balls in the library and fell in love with it." Broadway stars Will Swenson and Laura Osnes will lead a cast that includes veterans and active duty service members. This one promises to be an unforgettable pan-theatrical collaboration.


6. PWR BTTM
"PWR BTTM is my new favorite band," enthuses Russell. Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce make up this "queer punk band," which will be performing its unique brand of gender-bending pop music in Joe's Pub for just two late-night performances. In the meantime, you can listen to the group's latest album, "Republican National Convention," here. If you think the New York nightlife is wild, you have no idea until you see this electrifying, category-defying duo after midnight. Russell is categorical in one statement, though: "PWR BTTM is the future."

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