Two Broadway veterans — Taylor Mac, Tony-nominated playwright of “Gary” and Greg Kotis, the Tony-winning co-author of “Urinetown” – are back Off-Off Broadway this season, and why would that surprise anybody? That’s where they began, it’s where they honed their craft, and it continues to reflect their sensibility,
Theirs are among the 11 shows I highlight in my first-ever Off-Off Broadway season preview guide.
But Off-Off Broadway always struck me as too vast*, too ill-defined* and too complicated** to fit neatly into a preview guide. Typically Off-Off Broadway theaters give little advance notice of what’s coming up, the runs are very short and the official descriptions are often too vague, coy or hallucinogenic to be of much help .
Yet an Off-Off Broadway show can be groundbreaking, and sublime. This is relatively rare, yes, but the surprise of seeing something sublime Off-Off Broadway – and for as little as $10 – is so much more satisfying than paying through the nose for the pre-certified sublimity of a Broadway hit.
Also it’s year-round, not limited to the similar fare in the theater festivals that get so much concentrated attention in January and during the summer.
So in the spirit of experimenting that characterizes Off-Off Broadway itself, below are 11 shows that I’m looking forward to checking out this season, organized by the theaters in which they are appearing, starting with two of my favorites. And below that, a list of other Off-Off Broadway venues of repute, linked to their websites. See for yourself what else is playing this season.
La MaMa Experimental Theater Club is one of the quartet of theaters that gave birth to the Off-Off Broadway movement in the 1960s, and the only one that still survives. Since Ellen Stewart launched the theater in an East Village basement in 1961, it has presented more than 150,000 artists from over 70 nations. It launched the careers of an astonishing array of notable American performers and playwrights. It found a worthy successor in Mia Yoo, and won the 2018 Regional Tony Award. It is, in other words, the place to start.
There are 20 shows at LaMaMa from now until the end of April. I could make LaMaMa my entire preview guide, but I’ve selected three.
The Transfiguration Of Benjamin Banneker
January 23 – February 2
This show by Theodora Skipitares, renowned puppet artist, celebrates the life of Benjamin Banneker, a free black man living in Maryland from 1731 to 1806, who taught himself mathematics and astronomy, and made groundbreaking scientific discoveries. It features dance, live music, the Soul Tigers Marching Band, and a multi-generational cast of Brooklynites, including students from Benjamin Banneker High School
, a pioneering puppet artist whose Radiant City ,about Robert Moses using giant puppets of his head, was eye-opening and memorable.
One Green Bottle
February 29 – March 8
Bo, Boo and Pickle all have plans, but someone must stay home to care for their pregnant dog, Princess. Trivial disputes and slapstick mischief quickly morph into family feuds and also, possibly, to the end of the world.
Playwright Hideki Noda is one of the most celebrated theater artists of japan.
The Beautiful Lady
April 30 – May 17
With music by the late Elizabeth Swados, and direction by Anne Bogart,
Begun in 1996 by a group including down avant-garde legend Mac Wellman, Jim Simpson and Sigourney Weaver, this theater won me over way back after 9/11, with Ann Nelson’s “The Guys,” and I’ve written about its ambitious plans , its new building and new artistic director,, Niegel Smith who took over in 2015.
Leaving the Blues
January 16 – February 8
African-American blues and jazz singer and songwriter Alberta Hunter follows her long-dead friend, black comedian Bert Williams. Written by Jewelle Gomez and produced by TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence), which bills itself as New York City’s oldest professional LGBTQ+ theater
I had the pleasure of interviewing Hunter when, after working as a nurse for twenty years, she resumed her singing career at the age of 82.
February 28 – April 12
The Fre is written by Taylor Mac, and directed by The Flea’s artistic director Niegel Smith, his collaborator on “Hir” and “24 Decade History of Popular Music” and that makes this show a must-see no matter how weird or uncomfortable it winds up being. “In this queer love story, audiences will literally and figuratively jump into the mud with the Fre to hash out the current cultural divide.”
Doctors Jane and Alexander
January 24 – February 15
A new play by Edward Einhorn about his grandfather, Alexander S. Wiener, who discovered the Rh Factor in Blood. Told through the lens of interviews with his mother, Jane Einhorn, a PhD psychologist and visual artist who had recently experienced a stroke at the time of the interviews
Nearly everything I’ve seen by Einhorn and his Untitled Theater Company #61 – from Money Lab to The Iron Heel to The Neurology of the Soul has been, as promised, “a theater of ideas” — inventive and intelligent
I Am Nobody
March 5 – 29
An unhinged computer chip engineer threatens to destroy the world. What’s most noteworthy about this production is that it’s written by Greg Kotis, the author of arguably the most successful Off-Off Broadway show ever, “Urinetown.”
One of the venues that simply doesn’t offer much advance notice of its shows, almost all of which have short runs. But I’ve lucked out often enough here to feel it more than a coincidence, and I share their interest in puppetry.
January 31 – February 14
nspired by the adventure novel “Watership Down,” this multimedia puppet play follows one peculiar rodent on his journey to discover the interconnectedness of life
New York Theater Workshop offers support and the use of the 60-seat Fourth Street Theatre to a wide range of companies.
Based on the true story of a group of incarcerated women selected as beauty queen contestants at the Buen Pastor prison in Bogotá, Colombia, the play centers on a woman who avenged the raped women of Bogotá.
Bushwick has become something of its own cultural center now, but those not in the know should at least know that it’s just a block and a half from the subway.
January 8 – 25
I was impressed enough with a previous show by James & Jerome to be drawn to theirnew one despite the confusion engendered by its description: “James & Jerome create an original movie that plays only inside the audience’s minds. This live “movie” is an international melodrama about the triangular friendship (and sometimes enemyship) between a Colombian-born Mexican-raised pop-ranchera star, her teenage son, and a Palestinian-born Jordanian-raised owner of a chess shop in Greenwich Village. The Conversationalists is experienced at once as a theater piece, a concert, a radio play, a night of storytelling, and a movie dreamed together.”
In Melisa Tien’s play, a woman of color can rewind time, but only within the last five minutes. The result: her exchange with a white woman in a cafe becomes increasingly alarming
Among the other Off-Off Broadway theaters worth exploring:
Although still offering programs at its Off-Off Broadway building in midtown, it has has taken over Greenwich House Theater, which with 199 seats is an Off-Broadway house.
has a new artistic director with a stated aim of “multi-week theatrical runs and a dynamic line-up of singular one-off events”
The Clemente , a former school building on the Lower East Side that includes three Off-Off Broadway theaters.
*Technically, Off-Off Broadway simply means theaters with fewer than 100 seats, but it’s used as a description of companies as well, not just physical buildings. Many of these companies have no permanent home. A recent report issued by the Mayor’s Office Of Media and Entertainment found “748 small venue theater organizations” spread out across the city.
**Few Off-Off Broadway companies give much advance notice: For example, one of my favorite Off-Off Broadway theaters, Labyrinth, lists “World Premiere Play TBA Spring/Summer 2020” on its website. In addition, some venues offer a mix of Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway-sized theaters. Most of the venues aren’t producing their own shows, but presenting the work of other companies. So does it even make sense to organize a look at Off-Off Broadway via venues?