THEATER The chill air had no snow in it. Instead, a particularly nasty outbreak of influenza whipped through the city, leaving a fine coating of mucus on the ground. Still, New York City looked beautiful as the various performing arts festivals that cluster around the annual meeting of APAP (the Association of Performing Arts Presenters) all revved up for a fat two weeks of shows this January.
These festivals, pitched to out-of-town-presenters and general audiences alike, include Under the Radar (an international but New York– and American-heavy program at the Public Theater), PS122's Coil festival (specializing in theater but including some contemporary dance and performance), American Realness (a concentrated dose of leading contemporary dance/performance on the Lower East Side), Other Forces (a program of new independent theater presented by Incubator Arts Project, itself originally a program of Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater), and the brand new Prototype festival (whose niche is new, chamber-sized opera-theater).
Under the Radar is the daddy of them all. Founded by longtime new-work maven Mark Russell (formerly of PS122) and now in its ninth year, Under the Radar has become more concentrated of late, partly in reaction to the other specialized festivals that have cropped up alongside it.
Festival director Russell described the trajectory in a recent phone conversation. "It's a very interesting time, because by the ninth year you're a fact on the landscape. People are beginning to take you for granted," he said with a laugh. "Yes, there are a lot of other festivals now; it's sort of become festival central in these two weeks in January, which is a little crazy, and I don't recommend it. But it has created its own scene, in a way. I think that's great. We started out trying to be big and trying to encircle a lot of the work that was going on downtown and around the world. Now, I've actually shrunk the festival to be more surgical and specific. Two years ago we were doing 21 things, and this year we're doing 12, which feels more comfortable and better. We're trying to go deeper in each of these performances and support them better, and let other people curate their way with the other festivals as well."
UTR's program this year included premieres by some leading American new-work companies, including Philadelphia-based Pig Iron (whose Chekhov Lizardbrain came to San Francisco as part of the 2011 FURY Factory Theater Festival). Pig Iron's Zero Cost House is a simply but shrewdly staged, intriguingly unexpected collaboration with Japanese novelist-playwright Toshiki Okada (founder of theater company Chelfitsch). It unfolds an autobiographical dialogue between the younger and the present-day Okada over Thoreau's Walden across a shifting set of actors and related characters (including a downbeat and down-at-the-heel Thoreau). Its po-faced humor belies an ultimately serious exploration of enduring ideas about our relation to society, political commitment, and art's function amid the insanity of a status quo represented by the overwhelming indifference to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. This was a stimulating call to thought and imagination as nothing less than action toward survival.