At this year’s Under the Radar Festival, which continues at the Public Theater through Sunday, the survey of what’s new in the international avant-garde has included 12 featured offerings, four cabaret acts and six pieces of developmental work under the Incoming! rubric. Here’s a final report from the front line.
An electric affinity crackles between the man and the woman in line for the movies. They have never met before, but they both stand out in the crowd. The head of each has been subtly illuminated, as if framed by self-consciousness.
And you may wonder — because their faces are both disfigured beyond concealment — if such self-consciousness ever leaves them.
Thus begins the exquisite “Feos” (“The Ugly Ones” in English) from the Chilean troupe Teatro y Su Doble, conceived and directed by Aline Kuppenheim. This quiet, resonant production is a boy-meets-girl story of a singular stripe.
That’s partly because our leading, would-be lovers are portrayed by mannequin puppets. I initially thought these figures were life-size, until I was able to discern — in the gloaming of a sustained, velvety night (lighted by José Luis Cifuentes) — the larger human beings in black who manipulate them.
Such a disorienting perspective befits a work that asks us to think about how we see others. So does having its principal characters, in a long scene set in a cafe, seated so we see only their “good” side. We could almost forget here that they have very visible distinguishing traits that set them apart.
Or we could if these nameless characters weren’t engaged in concentrated talk about what it means to look the way they look. (The show is in Spanish, with supertitles.) They are fatalistically preoccupied, in particular, with how their appearances affect their prospects for an active sex life.
The Mario Benedetti story that inspired this production is very short and elliptical. This adaptation, by the uncompromising playwright Guillermo Calderón, fills in the conversational blanks.
These characters speak with the hesitations of any couple that has just met. Yet their similarities allow them an unusual frankness, and their discussion implicitly becomes a dialogue on physical appearance as an existentially defining force.
Neither of them has been invested with extraordinary charm or pluckiness. But we find ourselves deeply invested in the outcome of this evening. The play concludes with a wordless morning after that glows with aching ambivalence. BEN BRANTLEY
“If you get motion sick at any time just raise your hand.”
That’s the unusual advice delivered as an audience consisting of only four people enters a darkened classroom on the Public’s third floor to see the virtual reality work “To the Moon.”
After donning the requisite headset and taking hold of the manual controllers provided, I understood why: During the course of the 15-minute experience, the four of us, seated on far-spaced stools and isolated even further in discrete mindscapes, were launched from Earth and incorporated into a series of gravity-defying lunar vignettes.
There’s a lot of gorgeous psychedelia in the vignettes, created by the pioneering electronic avant-gardist Laurie Anderson and the new media artist Hsin-Chien Huang. A galactic debris storm pelts your spacesuit with rocks and moon mud. Extinct creatures made from DNA skeletons loom and lumber. A donkey takes you for a ride to the rim of a dizzying abyss.
If there is no explicit conflict, there is a quieter message about the smallness of human life in the universe and its outsize capacity for mischief. Flags trying to signify ownership pop up on the lunar surface. The earth rises very small in the distance, yet you keep looking around for it in hope or worry. Your shadow gets tinier and tinier.
“I love the stars because we cannot hurt them,” Anderson whispers through your headset in her best bedtime voice.
Her tinkly, thrumming music enhances the feeling that “To the Moon” is more of an illustrated soundtrack or a high-tech cartoon than a piece of theater. A display in the hallway outside the classroom says it was inspired by the tale of a Chinese painter who, upon finishing an enormous vertical landscape of unprecedented detail, walked into it and disappeared.
“To the Moon” wasn’t dramatic enough to make me do the same. Although I kept trying to pet my lovely donkey, I couldn’t shake the awareness that, ultimately, I was pawing in the dark at nothing. JESSE GREEN
It is a terrible pickup line, but Liu Mei uses it every time.
“Do you know why it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbows?” she asks. “They hold the secret to immortality.”
The guy she has her eye on might edge away before she urges him to try it. But in Wang Chong’s cinematically intimate production of “Nick Payne’s Constellations,” for the Beijing company Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental, that guy is always Du Lei. And in some versions of their lives, they fall in love.
As Mei (Wang Xiaohuan), a Beijing physicist, tells Lei (Li Jialong), a beekeeper, “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”
That is the conceit of Payne’s stop-and-start play, with brief scenes performed over and over, each in a universe with its own mood and circumstances, where tiny decisions alter a person’s path.
The actors, a married couple offstage, are captivating in their versatility, though their performances are calibrated for (and conveniently subtitled on) the video screen above the stage. Down below, angled toward the cameras, they often have their backs to us.
When Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal starred in “Constellations” five years ago on Broadway, as characters called Marianne and Roland, balloons floated just above the stage. This Mandarin-language production, whose Under the Radar run at La MaMa ended on Jan. 12, has a more starkly elegant look.
The circular set (by Ji Linlin and Di Tianyi) is bare except for the cameras stationed along its periphery, and the live hamster in a transparent box at center stage. From the time the audience enters, it races on its wheel, getting nowhere.
Between scenes, where we see fragments of Mei and Lei’s future shadowed by loss, the screen shows the hamster in close-up — a reminder of the cyclical nature of life and the futility of trying to alter the immutable. Lick your elbow all you like, but even a multiverse won’t rescue you from mortality. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES
Under the Radar Festival
Through Sunday at various locations; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org.