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Under the Radar 2018: How to Be a Rock Critic and Re-Member Me

New solo shows are presented in the Public Theater's annual festival of experimental work.

Erik Jensen in How to Be a Rock Critic, part of the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater.
(© Craig Schwartz)

How to Be a Rock Critic
by David Gordon

Lester Bangs was a pill-popping, beer-drinking, cough syrup-guzzling train wreck of a man who happened to be one of the most influential music journalists in American history. By the time of his fatal overdose at the age of 33, Bangs had introduced a whole generation of listeners to bands like the Clash and the Velvet Underground, and the reviews he wrote for Rolling Stone and Creem are still regarded as the gold standard. He believed that music had the power to change the world, but in the end, it was the art form he loved so much that brought him down.

Bangs is the subject of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's How to Be a Rock Critic, a portrait of human hedonism that Jensen performs with gusto. Bangs is in the middle of writing a review as we arrive at his apartment, but he puts that aside to play us his favorite album, Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks." There's one problem: He can't find it amid the clutter of records and Chinese takeout containers (Richard Hoover created the meticulously disgusting set). As he looks for it, other albums trigger memories of his youth and years past.

As befits a play dealing with a man known to chase painkillers with Romilar, How to Be a Rock Critic is a loosely structured blend of typical biography (a journey through his childhood as a Jehovah's Witness in El Cajon, California) and gonzo lecture on the ephemeral nature of art and fame. Over the course of his brief career, Bangs shaped tastes while deconstructing the mythical status of rock gods in the process.

That's what Jensen, grizzled, with baggy jeans and a paunch, is doing, too. Bangs lived for the roar of the greasepaint, and Jensen draws energy from the audience in an appropriately self-indulgent manner. At the same time, he charts the emotional descent of a man cursed by both the ebb and flow of time and the experience of meeting his idols. As tastes changed, Bangs's disillusionment grew, and he could never find his way back to the love he once had. Nimbly guided by director Blank, Jensen is unafraid to dig deep in order to present this existential despair.

Above all, Jensen and Blank have created a passionate tribute to an important figure whose name is being rapidly lost to time. How to Be a Rock Critic will make you want to play the Clash at full volume for all to hear, and then Google old reviews to find out what Lester Bangs thought.

Dickie Beau in Re-Member Me, part of the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater.
(© Robin Harris)

Re-Member Me
by Pete Hempstead

Lip-sync artist Dickie Beau's experimental, fragmented, and often very funny meditation on Hamlet begins with a whimsical scene behind a transparent curtain as his silhouette rises from bed and begins stretching to the Village People's "Y.M.C.A." What can this possibly portend, we wonder? It's hard to tell at the outset, until Beau, wearing short-shorts and a rainbow-colored sweatband, emerges from behind the curtain and begins to gyrate under a disco ball hanging from an I.V. pole. We soon see that, as in Hamlet itself, soberer musings anchor the humor.

Using recorded interviews with the likes of actors John Gielgud and Suzanne Bertish, Beau looks at the play from the outside in, lip-syncing the voices of theater greats who tell stories of their own experiences with Hamlet along with memorable performances they've seen. Beau's hourlong piece, Re-Member Me, now playing as part of the Public's Under the Radar festival, is itself memorable for its tender, thoughtful examination of the way a monumental work like Hamlet can inspire us to reassemble ourselves.

Beau does some actual reassembling onstage. Strewn about the foot of the stage are several dismembered mannequins. Above is a large screen upon which we see numerous projections; chief among them are prerecorded videos of four identical faces side by side, all of them Beau's, lip-syncing the voices of several theater people: theatrical agent John Wood, director Richard Eyre, actor Ian McKellen, and director Sean Mathias.

It's easy to forget that Beau is still onstage while we watch and listen to Beau's faces uncannily synced with the interviewees' voices. But he's there, attaching mannequin arms to torsos and dressing them in costumes worn by several actors who played Hamlet throughout the years (some costumes are provided by London's Almeida Theatre). But to what end? The answer comes gradually as Beau and director Jan-Willem van den Bosch create a provocative tension between the interviewees' humorous anecdotes and their wistful discussions of Ian Charleson, who took on the role of Hamlet while his health was rapidly deteriorating (Charleson, well known for his portrayal of Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, died at the age of 40 from AIDS-related complications).

To reveal more would spoil the show's quiet revelations. It's unfortunate that so many of those revelations come in the prerecorded videos. That may be a quibble, but to see Beau transform from one interviewee to another would have made for more satisfying theater and made the mannequin construction seem less like busywork. Yet Re-Member Me, with its dissected and reassembled collage of voices and haunting memories, remains affecting and at times poignant, a testament to the power of theater to help us re-collect the past, build upon it, and heal from it. Re-Member Me is also likely to be one of this festival's best-remembered shows.