The Playgoer: "Under the Radar" Festival

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"Under the Radar" Festival

I'm late, unfortunately, in writing up my visits to the Public's "Under the Radar" festival last week, but here goes.

First, it was pretty noticeable how packed the place was. The Public succeeded at filling their building for a couple of weeks with a definitely young audience checking out new work. Very encouraging.

Of course, the point of "Under the Radar" is more curatorial than dramaturgical. It showcases work already produced or developed elsewhere. Indeed, the two shows I elected to see happened to be from Canada!

First was the Daniel MacIvor play, a writer I needed to check out ever since Jason Zinoman's glowing NYT tribute last summer. MacIvor's "A Beautiful View" is a spare and elegant three-hander for two women and a boom box. Spanning over an indeterminate number of years, the play traces the women's literally unnameable relationship. MacIvor (who also directed) enjoys playing with lesbian stereotypes as the down-vested close-cropped pair go camping and jam with what can only be described as a ukulele thrash-band. But they resist any labeling of their attachment to each other, no matter how physical it becomes. When one speculates, "We're like a couple, aren't we?" the other--with typical MacIvor deflatedness--comes back with "Coupla what?" The point seems to be to resist society's naming of our relationships and loving of one another.

I found MacIvor's minimalist style (on both the page and the stage) engaging, for about the first 45 minutes. The play's second half just left me more time to regret that he wasn't writing about anything bigger than the minutiae of relationships and that the writing wasn't more unusual. "Beautiful View" left me unsatisfied in itself, but still curious to see more of MacIvor's work.

I enjoyed more the proudly less "human" offering of "Famous Puppet Death Scenes." (Given my time to see only one other Radar show, how could I resist that title.) This NY debut by Alberta's Old Trout Puppet Workshop announced a new force in this underappreciated genre. In fact, I would go so far as to say that with their eerily beautiful tableaux, their stretching of time, their deadpan mordant sense of humor--Old Trout are the Robert Wilson of Puppet Theatre. (Not to be confused with claims for Wilson being the Puppetmaster of Real Life Actors.)

But for all the piece's delightfully mock pretentiousness, it is anything but pretentious. True to its title, the evening presents such "classic" highlights as "Das Bibpsy und Mumu Puppenspiel" and "The Feverish Heart by Nordo Frot" as if they were Hamlet. Employing a team of four puppeteers under the skillful direction of Tim Sutherland, Old Trout resourcefully uses multiple mini-prosceniums, combines elaborate stage business with classic Punch & Judy bopping, all to the accompaniment of terrific antiquated voice-overs and an eclectic score of scratchy lp's. The result is the most hilarious Grand Guignol since "Shockheaded Peter."

A smart producer would import Old Trout right away and install them not in a 499-seat barn (as befell "Shockheaded") but in a downtown warehouse for a series of 10pm shows. It would be a hit for children of all ages.


Anonymous said...

Sorry you didn't like the last 20 minutes of the play. For me it's not about the minutiae of relationships but rather the fact that in the face of death we must reconcile conflict and see our best selves in order to pass on from the physical world.

Anonymous said...


I liked it all the way through! And quite liked the ending.