By: Jan. 20, 2020
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A scene from Feos, running January 15-19 at The Public Theater as part of The Public's 16th Annual Under the Radar Festival. Photo Credit: Elio Frugone Piña

Mid-January in New York City does not appear to be a particularly romantic or momentous time of year for The Big Apple. The Christmas decorations have come down (most of them at least) and the holiday revelers and hoards of tourists have retreated, getting on with their own lives for the start of a new year -- and in this case, a new decade -- during a very tumultuous time where everything matters and nothing, especially in the arts, feels arbitrary.

Luckily for New Yorkers and the savvy visiting national and international elite that have come to town for APAP (Association of Performing Arts Professionals) and ISPA (International Society for the Performing Arts), there is the Under the Radar Festival. Helmed by The Public Theater, for 16 years the now multiple-venue event has brought some of the most exciting, provocative works and companies from around the world to New York City during what is traditionally considered the slump season for shows. It's where the cool kids go to see what's really happening in theatre expressions both local and global after The Rockettes pack up their heels and the Broadway shows trying to squeeze the last few bucks out of the seasonal rush either close for good or plod along until the spring brings a new crop of visitors. The festival acts as a splash of cold water on one's face after the holidays where a couple of weeks of complacency and indulgence could turn one soft and lazy. Under the Radar (January 8-19, 2020) is an annual reminder of why compelling and challenging theatre par excellence is more vital and urgent than ever. For those in the know it is a wake up call for the year to come, and an invitation to open up to possibilities.

This year's offerings featured some exceptional pieces, two of which forced the viewer to take a cold hard look and examine themselves, the human condition and how we all fit into (or are unfairly dismissed and left out) the societies we are a part of. One was about being truly and fully seen and the other being heard, respected and understood. These extraordinary works of theatre that gave pause and lingered long after the house lights were turned on were: The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, by the Australian company Back to Back Theatre, and Feos, from Chile, conceived and directed by master puppeteer Aline Kuppenhiem in collaboration with Teatro y Su Doble and playwright Guillermo Calderón adapted from Mario Benditti's short story "Noche de los Felos" (Night of the Ugly). None of the performers of either of these captivating pieces of theatre would normally be considered leading types, but that is precisely what made them so riveting and meaningful to encounter.

In Feos we see a queue of people waiting in line for a movie, showing signs of the usual impatience and restlessness that is demonstrated in those who are waiting. Suddenly a man and a woman lock eyes. It is a Tony and Maria from West Side Story moment where the world around them disappears and the two of them are all that exists in the universe - love at first sight, or so it seems initially. He bears a resemblance to David Duchovny and she is a slim brunette. This might seem a standard meet-cute for a rom-com or Broadway musical if not for two important distinctions -- they are both horribly disfigured on one side of their face and they are puppets. These truths become more and less significant as the play continues and the strangers with unique commonalities go on an epic first date where they strip off layers of hindrances and bear their souls (and eventually, their bodies) to each other. At a cafe nearby they share coffee, battle stories of their experiences of being deemed "ugly", how they got that way, how it has and has not affected their daily life and relationships, self-worth and all of the other things a newly acquainted pair might investigate to get to know one another.

Puppets have been a part of theatre for centuries, though the artistry of the form still tends to be more recognized and appreciated in the East. The total and utter mastery by the operators (multiple on each of the main characters) was reminiscent of Japanese bunraku puppet theatre which requires three operators per puppet and over two decades of arduous training and apprenticeship to receive the honor of being able to control the expressions of the face and head. I'm not sure if that level of commitment was de rigueur for these puppeteers (Aline Kuppenheim, Ricardo Paraguez, Ignacia Mancilla, Catalina Bize and Gabriela Diaz de Valdés) but regardless of that, the way that they made them appear so phenomenally human down to the nods of the head, scratting of a leg, subtle hand gestures and restless legs bobbing to ease tension made it hard to decipher if these sculpted entities were real flesh and blood or not. From a distance (which for a nearsighted person was both my blessing and grave misfortune), I could hardly tell and actually didn't want to know, for they were more profoundly human than many I have seen on stage or screen.

Something about the intimacy of their interaction, laced with humor and jabs at the quirkiness of humanity and the awkward stumbling during the early stages of love and connection (especially between rather uncommon individuals), reminded me of the films of the magnificent Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. Even the cadence and tone of their voices (the three speaking parts, the pair and the waiter, were voiced by Aline Kuppenheim, Francisco Melo and Roberto Farias) were evocative of characters from the world of Almodovar (Anotnio Banderas and Penelope Cruz are examples of famous Hollywood alumni who got their start and continue to work with Madrid-based master of cinema). In general, Feos possessed a very cinematic feel, and the ensemble of auxiliary characters standing in line for the movie, at the cafe, as well as much of the settings, props and atmospheric elements were animated and projected, offering a sense of a live stop-motion animation film. As with those kinds of productions -- if one lingers to watch the credits -- it takes an army to create all of the rich components which came together so naturally and flawlessly that anyone involved has most certainly demonstrated that they are at the very top of their fields in terms of both execution and astounding creativity.

A scene from Feos, running January 15-19 at The Public Theater as part of The Public's 16th Annual Under the Radar Festival. Photo Credit: Elio Frugone Piña

The writing (thanks to Guillermo Calderón's adaptation of the source material) was so charming and witty that the audience was rolling with peels of laughter consistently throughout. What was challenging was that it was a bit too wordy and fast-paced -- a rousing tennis match of dialogue -- to keep up with if Spanish is not your first (or a strong second) language and you were desperately trying to read the subtitles while attempting to remain engaged fully. Worse still, if like me, you were on the far aisle and the exit lights and side angle view further obscured the translations on the screen. However, despite those frustrating drawbacks, it was impossible not to enjoy, though when I consulted my show companion after the lights went up and requested a script, I realized just how much I was missing - the text and discourse were as brilliant on the page as the stage.

First dates always have some funny and fumbling moments, but this couple-in-the-making -- after being bombarded by a very familiar waiter who suggested they "save their money for the motel" and lamented over girlfriends dumping him -- recounted odd moments distinctive to the experiences their conditions have forced them into. She, who had a glass eye due to being mauled by a dog, recalled that when searching to whet her thirst in the night and reaching for a glass of water on the bedside table, had accidentally swallowed her eyeball not once but twice! There is humor and lightness but also the burden of unshakable trauma and insecurities which only served to bond them further. They are deeply aware of and share the pain of existing the the world being seen as different, abnormal, a freak, and feos (ugly). They do not pity each other yet they seek to understand one another and their suffering, as well as joys and dreams. He reveals that his therapist likened him to the Phantom of the Opera before offering him his first kiss at age 13, while she indulged that hers suggested she see men who have sex with deformed women as a form of compassion - but all were old and ugly. They unravel souls which are equal parts as beautiful and hideous as their faces, same as everyone. Disfigurement becomes demystified by the same realities and vulnerabilities everyone can relate to.

Like any outstandingly successful first date, they tango dance around the desire to go home together and investigate their chemistry biologically, but it takes some convincing. "We have known each other for a thousand years," he urges to reinforce their bond and ease her into comfort. How similar to any man trying to bed a woman he feels a distinctive interest in? But there are fears there too, as well as forbidden longings, such as to touch one another's faces without repulsion. This would not be a first for puppet sex on stage (Avenue Q and Hand To God spring to mind vividly), but it is the most moving and tender, extending far beyond the sculpted form and one's heartstrings were pulled as they explored intimacy on a level neither has known. Though stripped of hesitancies, they remained protected by the darkness, save for the lights of passing cars (crafted by the superb lighting design of José Luis Cifuentes) which cast zebra-striped shards of light on their forms. Feos was hands down one of the most romantic pieces of theatre I have ever been privileged to witness (despite not being able to comprehend the dialogue until a second reading).

The profundity of the piece and sheer magnificence of its implementation elicited many questions about love, life and theatrical performance. What is theatre, live performance? How can we utilize technology and artificial beings to showcase the most human of emotions and experiences, perhaps more deeply than if enacted by flesh and blood actors? Is love nothing more, nothing less than commonality of interests, incidents and understanding? If so, does it really matter if we have found someone who truly sees and accepts us, our flaws, our feos sides and all, who will commit to hold our hands in both the darkness and the light?

A scene from The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, running January 8-13, 16-19 at The Public Theater as part of The Public's 16th Annual Under the Radar Festival.
Photo Credit: Jeff Busby

Another troupe that was showcased at Under the Radar utilizes characteristics that could typically set them apart in outstanding ways to create brilliant theatrical experiences. They are Back to Back Theatre from Australia. As soon as I heard that this company would be performing, I knew I had to see for myself what they were up to. I had seen their extraordinary play-within-a-play Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, a multi-layered, astounding accomplishment in theatre and intense, glaring statement about social justice, cultural misappropriations, the dangers of dominance and dictatorship, and standing up for one's self and community against all odds. I was utterly and completely gobsmacked! To this day it remains one of the top three finest and most compelling works of theatre I have ever witnessed. I still get chills thinking about it. Though it came to Under the Radar, I saw it at the Edinburgh International Festival (which, opposed to the Fringe, is curated and highly selective) in 2014.

Their latest work, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, was less grand in scale, setting or the histories and mythologies that were at its core, and yet -- through more subtle means and a good dash of humor -- it tackled equally weighty, current and pervasive issues such as: basic human rights, sexual abuse, exploitation, mass food production, the omnipresence and potential omnipotence of Artificial Intelligence and how that looming entity which we have become indisputably dependent on could see us as inferior beings and seek to destroy us just as human beings have done to those they've seen as such in the past. Like a hunter, it sneaks up on you and like a shadow, it follows you -- the unsuspecting prey, blissfully unaware and ignorant of the dangers lurking nearby.

Unlike Feos, it wasn't a love story per se but there was a lot of tenderness and affection -- as well as annoyance and frustration -- amongst the four colleagues and friends who, like the pair in Feos, shared commonalities that could and have forced them to be deemed separate or different from society at large. All of the performers were people whose conditions would place them under the category of "neurodiverse" -- a rather new terminology, the popularity of which is often attributed to Australian sociologist Judy Singer and American journalist Harvey Blume as recently as the late 1990s, to describe folks who were previous labeled as mentally "handicapped" or "disabled". But these were not puppets nor were they utilizing forms of method acting to demonstrate physical and vocal characteristics of neurodiversity -- Back to Back Theatre is comprised of actors who have transformed what has often been or could be perceived as obstacles if not insurmountable challenges to a stage career, into singular gifts for their ability as storytellers. Along with the visionary and insightful guidance of director, co-author and Artistic Director Bruce Gladwin, the performers are also credited as co-authors and dramaturgs of each piece. The masterful, strikingly clever, yet deeply personal and colloquial works are the fruits of months, if not years, of conversations and improvisations that are stitched into the tapestry of a show that feels so natural and rooted in reality that it's hard to believe it's a devised work of fiction and theatre.

Shadow opens with actor Scott Price (who later informs the audience he is autistic) explaining to actress and company member Sarah Mainwaring about what is and is not appropriate behavior when it comes to one's own sexuality and interacting with others, publicly and privately. He is practical and sincere, "Masterbation is ok alone, but not in front of other people," and warns shrewdly (to an uproarious response), "People would be lost at sea if their President thinks he can touch other people's sexual organs." It seems as if Scott could teach celebrities and politicians a few things about publicly appropriate behaviors! Sarah is patient, attentive and inquisitive. The flow of their conversation appears so guileless and seemingly innocent for two adults that it elicits chuckles from the attendees. They are later joined by two others, Michael Chan and Simon Laherty, under the guise of preparing to conduct a meeting where they will address concerns related to the needs of neurodiverse people to an audience. But there is a notable and undeniable presence that ends up acting like a 5th wheel and an additional and impervious character in the play -- the translations of everything they say are projected in real time as text hovering above them, almost mockingly, for they are speaking English to an assumed English-speaking audience.

Sarah and Scott both noted this with great irritance, with the former, finally so fed up that she shouted expletives at the ominous transcriber. Sarah, who admits to having suffered from a head injury, speaks slowly and slurred, making her difficult to understand without the aid of written text. But this unique aspect of her character works well to the advantage of the piece -- for every sentence ends with a potent punchline once you get there. It is at that point the domineering translator talks back in the form of that little A.I. Assistant, Siri, showing her true colors in a rather manipulative and sometimes diabolical form, alienating and/or taking sides with each of the individuals when given the chance -- much like the character of the arrogant and sadistic Director in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, who becomes vicious to those in opposition to his absolute authority. The "HAL Legacy", in reference to the super-computer, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey is brought into play as a comparison reminding modern audiences of the understandable concerns that were raised decades ago and are ever more prevalent today.

A scene from The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, running January 8-13, 16-19 at The Public Theater as part of The Public's 16th Annual Under the Radar Festival.
Photo Credit: Jeff Busby

Each performer possesses his or her own particular gems that they offer to the piece, which also informs how they interact with each other and their roles in the never officially-enforced hierarchy of the meeting and group dynamic. Scott is bossy and highly cerebral. Michael is gentle, kindhearted and wants to be certain all voices are heard so the two inevitably butt heads. As the only person of color, Michael revealed himself in another dimension when, alone with Siri, he asked to speak in his native tongue -- Mandarin. Simon (who played Hitler in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich) seems to be content being quiet and passive. Scott calls him "childlike", Michael defends him, and he appears to be rather agreeable, though he made a powerful and telling statement, "I don't like the word disability. I don't feel it describes me." Sarah is generally a calming, grounded force as part of the team, yet she got noticeably riled up and disturbed by the patronizing force of Siri the translator and when injustices enacted upon the mentally challenged came up. "What are we celebrating? We are still second-class citizens," she proclaimed, "Over-medicated, subjected to training technique intended for animals. I am not a dog! (Simon barks). No one should be subject to abuse. Doesn't the shame sit with society? It's society's fault, not ours."

"They're still not getting it!" an exasperated Scott shrieks at the complacent audience. The feeling of being viewed as a being of lesser intelligence and significance looped the group back into the discussion of the HAL Legacy, where humans could become slaves to the entities of assumed superior, though completely artificial, intelligence ("Like a chicken or turkey," Scott asserted, evoking the energy-feeding fields of humans in the film The Matrix). This uneasy fear compounded with the irrefutable reality of the astounding increase (or increase in diagnosis) of neurodiverse persons who are part of our workforce, our day-to-day lives and our very bloodlines and families landed like a silent but potent bomb exploding in the faces of those feeling themselves impervious to what are inevitable truths. "Lack of opportunity, learning to have to speak up for your rights while others only highlight your limits. In the future, it will be impossible to keep up even if you try," Simon forebodes. "Your children and your children's children will have a disability," Michael adds. A dead silence from the formerly snickering audience causes a broad smile to spread over Scott's face. "I think it's finally sinking in," he beams.

They then stacked chairs and tore down the meeting room while resuming the discussions that opened the play -- celebrities' sexual mishaps and if one should still be allowed to enjoy the work of those such as Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson who committed wrongs against others but also contributed a lot of joy and entertainment to many. As if leaving the final moral decision (as well as many others) to the attendees while offering one last opportunity for humor and insight combined, Shadow ended with Jackson's catchy mega-hit "PYT (Pretty Young Thing)".

Under the Radar is an annual festival made possible through the leadership of Director Mark Russell, Paul Willingham and the Artistic Director of The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, among many others. For more information, please visit:


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