More than a Blip: The Under the Radar Festival Brings Outre Theater to the East Village

Sontag’s journals, porn-star angel alight on stage

GOODBAR. (Hassan E. Hussein)

As you enter the capacious quarters of the Public Theater in the East Village, you walk through a construction site: a grand building being torn out from the inside. The space is currently undergoing renovations, but still acts as the primary location for the eighth year of Under the Radar, New York’s downtown experimental theater festival, which runs through Jan. 15.

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This feeling of restoration never seems to leave as you become privy to the rich, eclectic and fiercely original performances the two weeks has to offer. Experimental theater, by definition, avoids convention, often leaving audiences questioning the value of the genre. But doubters must make the trip downtown: the offerings are impressive and remarkably diverse, including media like video, music, dance and puppetry, produced by companies based in Europe and America.

German and U.K. theater troupe Gob Squad encapsulates the spirit of the festival. The company is showing two features through the two weeks—as well as holding a soup drive (tickets are reduced if you bring a can of soup with you)—and the highlight is undoubtedly the intensely funny Super Night Shot. It is a film about films, or rather, a play about a film about films and also a collaboration with the unwitting public.

The performance involves a video recorded for exactly one hour before the audience is seated: the play is put on before the play begins. Heading into the streets, four actors each take on a role and make a movie using the city as the landscape and residents as extras, in what they term their “War on Anonymity.”

Although resorting to contrived devices to push the feature on—the whole thing seemed a little too squeaky clean for an off-the-cuff production—the spontaneity of interaction between actor and audience, and then audience again, is wholeheartedly entertaining. This is made effective by the expert charm of the four actors, who lure their counterparts to … well … kiss a rabbit.

Italian theater company Motus reviews the idea of documentary. Alexis. A Greek Tragedy—a courageous production based on the 2008 shooting of a Greek teenager by a policeman—uses the events that followed to discuss the usefulness of documentary making.

Motus uses Brechtian techniques with, on the most part, clinical precision. For example, a line of red tape is stretched out of the theater, across the street and down the block (Brecht’s main aim was for the audience to take the ideas of the play out with them), while the performers compose themselves for the next installment (remaining on stage during a scene change is quintessential Brecht).

The show’s climax is a corny mustering of as many audience members as possible to come onto the floor and “see from a different angle.” Nonetheless, Alexis remains an exciting, harrowing and intelligent show that leaves you pondering all the right things. Its connections to Occupy Wall Street—with recent newspaper clippings displayed on screen and the recurrent theme of the many protesting against the few—means it’s sure to be a hard hitter among those interested in that cause.

The early journals of writer, thinker and critic Susan Sontag are brought to the stage in the Builders Association’s production of Sontag: Reborn. Two characters, young Sontag and old Sontag—both performed by Moe Angelo with the latter in the form of film—punctuate each other’s speech. The script was adapted from the journals along with Ms. Sontag’s own annotations on her writing and although this makes for flat dialogue, the premise is superb.

Joshua Higgason’s intelligent design is easy on the eye, but it’s the performance of Ms. Angelo that shines through. Her acting is astounding. One easily forgets that she is playing both roles as she draws you in with nuance after nuance, gently reminding us of the frailties of the growing mind. Her performance is especially impressive considering that Ms. Sontag is not an easy character to get a grip on. She, herself, believes artists should not be judged by their behavior but by their art.

The critic’s journals are self-indulgent and sometimes quite literally masturbatory, but director Marianne Weems’s gilded touch makes it a pleasure to watch this ambitious interaction. The Builders are a rare treat for the theatergoer: a company that satisfies both intellectually and aesthetically. For cheap.

More than a Blip: The Under the Radar Festival Brings Outre Theater to the East Village