Performance diary: Under the Radar and other January miscellania

January 26, 2013

1.22.13 — Before the moment passes, I want to make brief notes about the Under the Radar Festival. Mark Russell, former maestro of PS122 in the East Village, has been running this parade of cutting-edge shows for several years. I’ve occasionally dipped into it but this year actually bought a pass and saw three shows:

Elevator Repair Service’s ARGUENDO. In contrast to their last three shows, which were epic adaptations of literary classics (by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway), the work-in-progress Arguendo is a chamber piece whose text draws verbatim from testimony before the Supreme Court about whether nude dancing is a First Amendment right (based on a 1991 case challenging an Indiana state law). ERS director John Collins let it be known in a program note (and in a fascinating talkback after the performance with law professor Bill Araiza) that he has developed a deep fascination with Supreme Court proceedings, and this case of course is an especially entertaining sample. It was fun to watch ERS company members Mike Iveson, Susie Sokol, and Ben Williams (below) impersonate the various Supremes. Iveson and Williams also took on the roles of the opposing lawyers, and Kate Scelsa appeared in a prologue and epilogue as a topless dancer who attended the hearings as an interested party. Watching the show was a little like having sex with a serious fetishist – an entertaining visit to a world you probably don’t want to live in.


The Debate Society’s BLOOD PLAY. This show got a lot of attention when it had a run at the Bushwick Starr last year, and I was happy to check out the company, whose key members are playwright-performers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and director Oliver Butler. It was more of an actual play than I expected, albeit a weird comic drama in the Mac Wellman vein: theatrical, rich language, creepy, unusually structured. A Jewish couple new to their neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois, host a cocktail party in their finished basement attended by another couple and a local door-to-door photographer; meanwhile, their pubescent son camps out in the backyard communing with supernatural forces. The period seems to be the 1950s, based on the music and the costumes and the language. The host makes a string of wacky invented cocktails involving strange ingredients, and the hostess leads everybody in a variety of quirky invented party games, all of which gave the actors plenty of opportunity for exaggerated cartoonish performances. Ultimately, I’m not sure what it all added up to, and it was one of those shows where the actors and the audience are all meant to feel smarter than the characters, which bugs me.

minsk ticket

Belarus Free Theatre’s MINSK 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker (or MINKS 2011, as my ticket said). This was my first exposure to the much-acclaimed political theater who made their US debut in 2011 with Being Harold Pinter. Founded in 2005 by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada (a married couple) with Vladimir Shcherban, the company prides itself on its adversarial relationship with its country of origin. A program note says “BFT was formed in Europe’s last surviving dictatorship and every member of the company has, at one time or another, been imprisoned, threatened or mistreated by the authorities, or they live in fear for their safety. They have all lost their jobs. In retaliation, they defiantly produce, devise and perform plays which highlight repression in Belarus and educate others.” I know nothing about life in this particular corner of the former Soviet Union, and I gained from this performance a picture of how Soviet-style state control mechanisms impact everyday lives in Belarus, especially youth, students, workers, and gay people. These performers clearly have quite a bit of physical and spiritual bravery, and even if their theatrical methods aren’t exactly ground-breaking to savvy New York theatergoers, I still found the piece compelling. My old dear friends Elinor Fuchs and Jim Leverett attended the same performance; extremely savvy theatergoers (both teach at Yale), they had seen BFT’s earlier work and liked it better.

I suppose I was comparing Minsk 2011 to the show I’d seen earlier in the week at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Opus No. 7, created and performed by the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory from the Moscow Theatre School of Dramatic Art. It had some ingenious design elements and theatrical moments, but I left underwhelmed by the content and frustrated by the staging: with the audience facing a long shallow space, many crucial images appeared at the opposite side of the theater from where I sat, so I missed them completely, and the projected subtitles were badly lit and difficult to read. There were two separate pieces: “Geneaology,” an imagistic piece about young Russian Jews searching for their ancestors, and “Shostakovich,” a portrait of the composer as tortured cultural hero. My theatergoing companion John Werner came up with a perfect one-sentence summary: “The show seemed like two separate student projects without anything particularly new to say about old themes chosen for their potent impact (the Holocaust, freedom of artistic expression in Soviet times).”

My friend Jonathan Lerner, now a writer but briefly a dancer in his youth, took me to see The Men Dancers: from the horse’s mouth, an ever-changing vaudevillean piece created by his old colleagues Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham. The format is simple: a number of dancers (or people from the dance world) get some version of 5 minutes to sit centerstage tell a personal story from their life in dance, and between stories three dancers simultaneously perform some movement of their own (with occasional duets), punctuated every so often by a promenade of several dancers across the stage. It’s a simple score that didn’t wear out its welcome. The show is usually a mixture of every kind of dancers, but this all-male-cast edition was a special tribute to Ted Shawn and his male dance troupe. The performers ranged from a teenager who performed in the original Broadway cast of Billy Elliott to some distinguished elders – David Vaughan talked about how he became Merce Cunningham’s archivist, and retired NY Times dance critic Jack Anderson (who gets around with a walker now) and his husband George Dorris brought tears to my eyes talking about their long careers as dance critics, aficionados, and life partners. It was a very down-to-earth, modest community event at the Theater at the 14th Street Y. I ran into the handsome and talented Sean Curran, who was there to greet his former colleague in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company, the terrifically talented and beefy Arthur Aviles, who was definitely a highlight of the show, twirling across the stage in several dresses before a final spin entirely naked, as is his wont.

I was excited to hear about Tales of Joni, a revue at 54 Below of Broadway singers doing Joni Mitchell songs, so I took my friend Ben Seaman for his birthday Thursday night. Boy, was that a fizzle. There were a few charming performers, notably Gabrielle Stavelli (who did a nice job with “Woman of Heart and Mind”), Lisa Asher (who led a rocking full-group rendition of “Raised on Robbery”), and Annie Golden (whom I always find appealing). But many of the arrangements by musical director Mark Hartman came off ham-fisted, reducing Joni’s sophisticated melodies to flat-footed blues or translating her guitar strumming into piano chord-pounding as if they were Billy Joel songs. And Nicholas Rodriguez, the one male singer in the bunch, epitomized narcissistic theater/cabaret singing at its worst, showing off his big voice at the expense of the songs. Ugh.

all the rage

In 2005, the veteran Broadway actor and singer Martin Moran debuted his one-man show The Tricky Part, based on his beautifully written and emotionally wrenching memoir about the consequences of being sexually molested from age 12 to 15 by a much older man who was his camp counselor. Now he has created a second solo show, All the Rage, that picks up where the other one left off, chronologically and spiritually. It’s a sort of Spalding Gray-like monologue about loss, death, life purpose, dreams, and anger, delivered with the same beguiling mixture of writerly detail, grace, and humor that characterized The Tricky Part. It plays at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater upstairs from Playwrights Horizons on W. 42nd Street. It opens officially Wednesday January 30, and I highly recommend it.




One Response to “Performance diary: Under the Radar and other January miscellania”

  1. youngjw3 Says:

    Living out here in the country, I am always grateful for your perceptive, so well-written observations and opinions. Thanks, Don!

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