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First Nighter: The Public Theater's Under the Radar Plusses and Minuses

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Here's a report on a few of the Public Theater's just-concluded Under the Radar Festival beneficences. The annual event -- this is the 10th year -- is supposed to focus on the new and experimental. Maybe yes, maybe no, but certainly there are helpful hints about whom and what to look for in the future and about whom and what to take a wait-and-see position.

On the yes end of things is the tgSTAN (an acronym for "Stop Thinking About Names") company's JDX-A Public Enemy. Curiously, as the title suggests, the five members present their version of An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen's classic, that's been on the radar since 1882 and therefore not an obvious item in the present circumstances.

Nevertheless, deconstruction is, if not new, still trendy, and it could be said members Jolente de Keersmaeker, Sara de Roo, Damiaan de Schrijver, Stijn van Opstal and Frank Vercruyssen are doing a bit of that. While van Opstal reads the stage directions, the others take on all roles in the drama about a man who fights for truth and becomes ostracized in a town about to commit a revenue-raising lie concerning its supposedly healing waters.

It's the manner in which the five execute their work that strikes new chords. Though emoting with a certain amount of exaggeration -- in contemporary street clothes -- they rush through the script at a break-neck pace. They negotiate the five acts in 90 minutes, give or take, with one intermission where wine is served in plastic cups.

The effect is that the actors are simply instruments through which Ibsen's message about rampant corruption lands loud and clear. They're impassioned thespian messengers bringing, or reiterating, old news that unfortunately has yet to be taken on board today.

Though they're very serious about their intentions, the troupe members are not above breaking the fourth wall with the occasional humorous aside. Though they do the play in their tongue (surtitles are on a screen behind them), they all speak English and idiomatic English at that.

Eventually, then, they're good company at the same time as coming across as dedicated artists with something important they want urgently to say about a 132-year-old play so pertinent to today that it hurts.

Debuting this side of the Atlantic after grabbing all sorts of prizes the other side (including the Ted Hughes Poetry Award, never previously given to someone under 40), 26-year-old Kate Tempest makes a significant dent at St. Ann's Warehouse. The implement is Brand New Ancients, a piece that takes as much from the hip-hop purveyors who've influenced her as it does from T. S. Eliot's 1922 epic, The Waste Land.

Coming almost a century after Eliot's excoriation of contemporary society, this one take a more sanguine view of a world that's lost its moral compass. William Butler Yeats's The Second Coming had the same dismayed outlook -- apparently a view poets are inevitably moved to take at regular intervals throughout history. Hello, there, John Milton.

Tempest believes that the only thing separating a downward spiral from renewed spiritual uplift is recognizing what the ancient ancients knew, which had to do with the assumed presence of the gods who, though flawed, regularly abetted humanity.

Pacing the stage and gesticulating in a rapper's angular manner, the short, blonde Tempest repeatedly reminds today's brand-new ancients that "the gods are all here, because the gods are in us."

Woven into her discourse are tales of characters called, among others, Brian, Kevin, Jane, Tommy, Gloria, Spider and Clive who are in unfortunately compromising situations. But before she's finished spinning their stories, Tempest inserts her audience-rousing hope for planet-wide improvement.

Granted, some of her outpourings are repetitious, and some of the background music played by Emma Smith, Natasha Zielazinski, Jo Gibson and George Bird is intrusive in the way of over-intense movie scoring. But there can be joy in excess, in impulsive exuberance. There is plenty here.

Much less appealing is writer-director-production designer Andrew Ondrejcak's Feast, which does have appeal when it begins. Five actors -- Reg E. Cathey in a stained T-shirt and cheap-looking crown, Jenn Dees, Cara Francis, Yuki Kawahara and Jason Robert Winfield in ultra-fancy gold outfits including stiff gold wigs -- sit at a table 10 or so feet off the ground.

It's an attention-grabbing image and remains magnetic when Cathey starts talking as King Belshazzar of the "mene mene tekel upharsin" repast that had such a dire finish. What he has to say has its poetic attraction, although it may not all be immediately accessible.

When Cathey/Belshazzar finishes his introductory speech, the focus shifts to the other four, the first of whom delivers a discourse about dinner courses that's determinedly full of coursing wordplay. When she's done, the others spout the sorts of inanities associated with glee-challenged banquets. They cajole each other, bicker, attack and preen. When not doing any of that, they lip-synch with great show to George Frederic Handel's Belshazzar (Charles Jennens libretto)

Again, Cathey addresses the audience, and again the four others engage in pointless remarks. You may think the second go-round is enough to make point. Ondrejcak doesn't. He keeps the blather up through a particularly sophomoric segment where insults like "Did you bathe in diarrhea?" as well as far worse (and more scatological) is voiced.

Deliberate wardrobe malfunctions occur, too, and predictably. Incidentally, at stage right and below the others Peter Cullen as The Fishmonger spends some time scaling a fish. Is it meant to foreshadow Christianity? Who knows? What the entire sophomoric exercise adds up to is very little, certainly not much worth anyone's time.

For the record: When ticket buyers file in, they discover that on every other seat is a whoopee cushion. (Did I say "sophomoric"? "Kindergarten-esque" is more like it.) The novelty-store items get plenty of use before the lights fade, but why no one uses his or her cushion to send a derogatory response stageward once the play kicks off beats me.

In I Stole Your Dad John Hodgman arrives as an actor, writer and regular on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I've missed him in all those capacities, but since he comes trailing such an awesome reputation, I won't issue a conclusive opinion of his talents based on this appearance.

He does himself a favor when for his final hunk of material he impersonates Ayn Rand reciting columns she might have written for Parade magazine. As offbeat premises go, this is a creative one, and, having donned a shapeless blue frock, Hodgman makes something of it -- well, before he stretches it beyond its sell-by date

A guy with some weight on him, he first enters from the wings wearing several layers of clothes -- some of which he takes off while chatting about nothing in particular. After a while, he gets around to a shaggy dog story. The punch line is the program's title. Somewhere among his comedic hunks, he's handed a ukulele and plays a song the audience is invited to join on.

Let's just say that on the laugh-meter, he hardly registers. He must be better in other situations or he wouldn't be as renowned currently as he evidently is. Would he?