The Best of the 2023 Under the Radar Festival

The Best of the 2023 Under the Radar Festival

Updated: 9 days, 5 hours, 54 minutes, 1 second ago

A united community is a powerful force that can be used for healing or destruction. That’s a theme that runs throughout this season’s Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater, back on its feet after a fully virtual 2021 edition and an abruptly canceled 2022 one.

That pre-vaccine lineup from two years ago included 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call, in which two audience members conversed over the phone, speaking only when prompted by a prerecorded voice to do so. I was frustrated by the limitations then—for its sketching of the “outline of human interaction”—but perhaps the bizarrely affecting sense of connection forged through this season’s A Thousand Ways (Part Three): An Assembly is an intentional payoff two years in the making. (I missed Part Two, in which two audience members met in person across a transparent partition.)

Now, up to 16 audience members gather (with no one else present) in a bright room at the top of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library and take turns reading succinct prompts on a stack of index cards. Sometimes one of the cards tells the reader to perform an action, ask a question to the group, or pass the deck of cards along. Sometimes a card just offers the reader a silent message not meant to be delivered aloud. Either way, the cards are to be dropped one by one on the floor, leaving a paper trail across the room as the audience members form circles, get comfortable on the floor, or take a brief field trip to the library’s outdoor rooftop.

And as the audience members respond to each question (they’re forbidden from asking anything of their own), a sense of who each person is in the group starts to form. (For the most part, the questions are noninvasive, though some inquiries about disability and surgical history may cross a line.) An Assembly invites you to imagine your own stories about these new acquaintances, using what little you know from their voices and postures and simple answers. How much can you know—or guess—about someone from watching them read aloud from index cards?

Advertisement

Yet, when one card prompted the group to put a hand on the person imagined to have the neatest handwriting, all of us instantly turned to the same woman. An Assembly isn’t so much about building real community as it is about how easily we construct facsimiles of communities, how quick we are, collectively, to assign roles to others and figure out our own. And sometimes to do good: After the show ended, all of us remained for another 10 minutes or so, frenziedly picking up the cards and putting them back in order. We hadn’t been prompted to do so, and we were told no previous assembly had attempted this, but something shared among us made us stay—and kept us there until the sorting was complete—and that’s not just facsimile.

Under the Radar 2023: seven methods of killing kylie jennerUnder the Radar 2023: seven methods of killing kylie jenner

Looking instead for a community from hell? Try Twitter, the dystopia in which much of seven methods of killing kylie jenner, a Royal Court Theatre production of Jasmine Lee-Jones’s 2019 play, takes place. Incensed by the characterization of Kylie Jenner as a “self-made billionaire,” Cleo (Leanne Henlon) launches a vitriolic Twitter thread in which she lays out the titular seven methods that she relishingly imagines. The conversation she really wants to start is one about white privilege and celebrity appropriation of Black bodies and beauty (her handle, by the way, is @IncogNegro), but the Twitter hordes descend unlisteningly, making threats and pelting racist epithets. Once she’s gotten started, Cleo won’t stop, even at the urgings of her bestie, Kara (Tia Bannon), who sees the doxxing territory for which her friend may be bound.

Jones’s theatrical transformation of Gen-Z language and online discourse is precise and witty, but the seven-part tweeting conceit pads out early scenes with excess impressions of emojis and Twitter trolls. (Milli Bhatia’s imaginative staging of the online world does give her designers—particularly Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting and Elena Peña’s soundscape—plenty of room to scene-steal.) The colorism and homophobia that remain sticking points in this tensely tender friendship (Kara is biracial and queer) eventually ground the play amid the social media mayhem: The disinterring of the past hurts that Cleo and Kara have caused each other finds seven methods of killing kylie jenner at its most moving.

Advertisement

Jones may take aim in too many directions: at online anonymous attackers, at Kylie herself (“She’s wearing so much fake tan she looks like a pigeon in an oil spill,” Cleo seethes at one point), and at us. But she lands her fiercest blow in allowing Cleo to articulate the suffocating hypocrisy of a world that denigrates her Black body and shuns her for embracing her authentic Blackness while lauding white women for appropriating the very features of her identity that she’s been told makes her worth less. Both actors offer scaldingly honest performances, especially Henlon as the canny, pained Cleo, who explains, “I don’t know that there’s any way to see myself apart from in reference to someone else.” That’s a lesson that’s delivered better in a theater than in a Twitter thread, and Jones is a shrewd, effective messenger.

Under the Radar 2023: Are we not drawn onward to new erAUnder the Radar 2023: Are we not drawn onward to new erA

The Belgian theater collective Ontroerend Goed’s Are we not drawn onward to new erA, presented by the festival in association with BAM, offers a different lens (two actually) on the impact of a community. At first, this play seems like impenetrable avant garde as six actors assemble, one by one, to carry out a series of unexplained acts: They uproot and then destroy a tree, litter the stage with plastic bags that fall from the sky, construct and then erect a giant statue of a man, and pollute the air with huge hoses spraying dry ice. “Is it meant to make sense?” I wrote down in the early minutes, followed by “What language? Why untranslated?” in reference to the occasional lines of dialogue that didn’t sound quite like human speech.

And, then, halfway through, the twist: A screen descends and we watch everything we’ve just seen with the tape played backward (the title, after all, is a palindrome). They aren’t polluting and hero-worshipping and tearing apart trees. Rather, they’re sucking up the smog and tearing down the monuments and planting. Those strange utterances are actually English recorded backward, as the group debates how best to heal the trash heap of a world they’ve inherited.

Advertisement

Are we not drawn onward to new erA is most mesmerizing in the hard-to-believe meticulousness of its staging, as every moment in the sometimes-bewildering first half of the play must be perfectly timed to make sense when played backwards. And when we roll the tape, there’s unexpected whimsy and magical realism, such as those bags that once dropped from the rafters and now fly up. In one delightfully silly turn, a man who appeared, in the first half of the play, to squish his chewed-up wad of gum into the eye of the statue, has a grosser idea in mind when we watch it back. Once the statue’s been knocked down, he finds the gum wedged in there, checks that no one’s looking, and peels it off and puts it in his mouth.

And while the story doesn’t make total sense played backward either, the theatrical and filmic feats involved in telling it more than make up for those plot holes. The community honored in Are we not drawn onward to new erA, most of all, is the artistic one that can still generate refreshing theatrical surprises like this magic trick of a play.

Under the Radar 2023: King Gilgamesh & the Man of the WildUnder the Radar 2023: King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild

Under the Radar’s warmest offering this season, though, may be a work that leans on much as music as it does theater: King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild, a soul-stirring two-hander performed by co-creators Ahmed Moneka and Jesse LaVercombe with backing from Moneka’s thrilling five-piece band, Moneka Arabic Jazz. The piece stages the fictionalized meeting of Ahmed and Jesse (the actors play versions of themselves) in a Toronto café: Ahmed’s an Iraqi artist-in-exile who’s just been granted permanent residency in Canada, after facing threats back home for writing a film about Iraqi LGBTQ+ rights, and Jesse’s a Minnesotan-born actor who’s just received the devastating news that he’s been cut from a bit part in a film role as a fighter pilot (in the Iraq War, as it happens) because he’s too tall to play opposite Jeff Daniels.

Some putting things in perspective is in order, and, as Jesse settles in for a long, mushroom-enhanced evening in Ahmed’s café, the friendship blooms quickly, thanks to Jesse’s jazz piano skills and his curiosity about the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh. Their conversation plays out among interspersed scenes dramatizing the legendary friendship of the once-tyrannical King Gilgamesh (Moneka) and the monstrous Enkidu (LaVercombe). Co-creator Seth Blockley stages the transitions between Toronto and Mesopotamia with clever, accelerating fluency, and the use of the old story to add layers of meaning to this new one never feels overplayed or heavy-handed.

Advertisement

It’s never quite clear just how true-to-life the characters of Ahmed and Jesse actually are, but that ambiguity adds to the show’s charm, because, just like we’ve done with Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the show mythologizes its creators in real time. King Gilgamesh & The Man of the Wild is the kind of play that feels both impossible and inevitable, a work of art that could only be dreamed up by this combination of artists asking the right questions at the right time in the right place. It manages its own expansiveness by centering its scenes on Ahmed and Jesse with intimate specificity (and often a shimmering sense of humor) and letting the music say the rest.

And, led by music director Demetrios Petsalakis, Moneka’s band has lots to say. The underscoring throughout electrically animates the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu before bubbling into the real world, culminating in a concert, featuring Moneka’s magnetic vocals, that merges Arabaic maqam, African rhythms, and jazz and funk traditions. A show less brimming with talent and intelligence might make sure the audience understood the messages of a story about cross-cultural artistic fusion and friendship, but this one doesn’t need to drive the point home, because it’s a gorgeous piece of theater that, ultimately, sings for itself.

Under the Radar runs from January 4—22.