This year's Under the Radar Theater Festival steps out of the black box. Throughout January, emerging theater companies from all over the world are performing shows at the Public Theater in New York. Three plays in particular piqued my interest:
"C'est du Chinois" is a play from the Hungarian-born director Edit Kaldor who resides in the Netherlands. The play is entirely in Mandarin save for the opening words in English, read off a page from a carefully selected (and likely embarrassed) audience member: "Thank you for your interest to learn Mandarin. It is a good investment of your time." The bulk of the play is essentially a light-hearted language tutorial. It begins with a pact -- the audience will be patient with the story, and in return, the actors are patient with our butchering their language as they teach it to us. With the houselights on, the atmosphere is communal and playful; I chuckled along at the cognates, and I eventually understood basic verbs and adjectives. At one point, the actors unloaded mounds of Hershey's bars from plastic bags to demonstrate the phrase "A lot of chocolate." But by the end of the play, I had to agree with the New York Times' review by Charles Isherwood: "I think I could say 'I love chocolate' in Mandarin, although I don't suppose the immediate future will make this a necessity. Beyond that, I fear I'd be back at square one."
In "Ganesh Versus the Third Reich," a play-within-a-play, a group of actors put on a show about an Indian diety's attempt to reclaim the swastika symbol from Hitler's Germany. Conceived by Australia's Back to Back Theater Company, the play is made up largely of disabled performers delivering scene-stealing deadpan humor. The Guardian named it one of the best performances of 2012, adding, "It was often very funny -- bubbling with joyful absurdity -- but the humour prickled at your conscience." Unfortunately, the play I saw wasn't as good as advertised. On one hand, the scenes where cast members rehearse the Ganesh play is both hilarious and moving. However, the director character's self-conscious proclamation claiming the audience has come to see a "freak show," soon dampened the mood. This made the audience appropriately uncomfortable, and seems increasingly out of place as the play continued to take on a moralistic tone.
My favorite show of the festival was the complicated and brilliant "Zero Cost House," a collaboration by the Japanese director Toshiki Okada and Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theater Company. Like "Ganesh," the play is meta-theatrical. It tells the story of Okada's life, following him from his youth all the way to middle-age, introducing one of his early experimental plays along the way. Okada laughs along with us at the awful play's staging -- which features characters all dressed as rabbits -- and his youthful innocence overall. With all of this happening at once, it is impressive when the actors seamlessly switch from stage persona to biographical character, especially since everyone in Okada's cast is an American playing a Japanese person who doesn't speak English. The layers and cross-continental translations that weave through this arrangement allow for witty scenes, both comical and meaningful. It is impossible not to admire how the collaborators were able to pull it off.
Maybe the show had been fine-tuned for New York or maybe I was prepared for the 110 minutes without intermission, but I was not hampered by the slow speed of the play. Instead, I thought the director's work brought up important themes in art, particularly when the character of Okada is shown speaking to Henry David Thoreau. The Washington Post admires the play's ability "to pry open those provocative ideas about philosophy, politics and shelter." For me, Zero Cost House not only addressed these artistic paradoxes, but performed them well.
The festival runs Jan. 9 - 22 with additional performances of "Life and Times" until Feb. 2.