Isolation, dread, disconnection and video: That’s what the first night of the Public Theater’s 17th annual Under the Radar festival offers – and that (surely not coincidentally) is what most of us have been living through over the past ten months.
This is the first year that the experimental festival is entirely free and also entirely on video – the former an outright gift, the latter a mixed blessing.
All three of the following relatively short videos are available through January 17th. The title links to their page on the Public Theater website.
More than halfway through “Capsule,” Peter Mark Kendall and Whitney White’s collage of a film about their lives and their relationship during quarantine, he is telling her about an intimate conversation he had with his wife, who asked him what his OCD is like when it’s bad.
Remember that scene in Clockwork Orange when “they strap the guy down and clamp open his eyes and force him to watch ultraviolence?” Kendall asks White.
We hear White say to herself: “Shit I’ve never seen that.” But she says to Kendall: “Yeah.”
“It’s like that. Every feeling, every thought is a nightmare.”
The two are walking down a country road littered with Fall leaves; as he continues to describe his feeling, loud rhythmic music starts playing, she puts her hand on his back, and we hear her say (not to him but in voiceover) “Empathy is weird. Empathy is necessary.”
It’s a touching moment, and a quietly amusing one – a few seconds that offer condensed insight into their friendship…into any friendship.
But then the scene shifts abruptly to a kind of music video for one of their original compositions. It has a rush of images that seem designed by an artist with a new video camera – hands reaching for one another against a cloudy sky, an apparent protest march, a closeup of fire that turns out to be a campfire, Kendall and White perhaps performing in a concert (though it’s hard to tell because of liberal use of strobe lights) — and I glibly wondered: Was I the strapped-down guy from Clockwork Orange?
That’s “Capsule” encapsulated – moments of insight alternating with arty music videos.
The songs are more focused and appealing than the images accompanying them. The moments can be nuanced and involving, especially in the friends’ conversations about race. We’re evidently meant to see this film as a kind of diary of the past year; she talks at various times of her fear and anger when George Floyd was murdered and when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. More moments feel random and without much purpose, as if trying to catch the aimlessness of the past year. “I started wearing corsets,” she tells him while they’re resting side by side in wooden lounge chairs outdoors.
“Capsule” is 48 minutes long – which frankly turned out to be longer than I wanted to spend with it. But that may be because of the day of national drama in which I chose to watch it.
Epiritu is a 35-minute work, in Spanish with English subtitles, divided into some dozen vignettes, songs and monologues by the Chilean company Teatro Anonimo.
What the disparate scenes have in common, besides an appealing elusiveness, is a sense of the absurd and a feeling of dark dread.
That’s enough for me, but they’re apparently supposed to share more than that. The blurb on the Under the Radar website describes the piece as a series of stories happening in “an unknown city” at night, and involving “ anonymous individuals marked by the spiritual crisis unleashed by the wild consumerism of the times and the exploitation of the neoliberal model….” Let’s stop here; the description goes on for a while, but becomes less and less clear (I suspect it reads better in the original Spanish.)
There is only one vignette that I could discern as having anything to do with wild consumerism. It’s a conversation between two characters, one sitting on a bench, the other writhing shirtless, with an oiled torso and a red cloth covering his entire head. The man on the bench, we find out, is a dictator who was overthrown. The oiled man is – I’m taking a guess here — the devil. The consumerism part is when he advises: “Put them to sleep with the poison of abundance.”
I prefer the scenes of more straightforward squabbling, especially the one where a man argues with a woman who is walking in the street past his apartment because she is trespassing on the light that emanates from his home. It turns out he’s just picking a fight with her because he’s lonely. They do not wind up making a heartwarming connection, which is consistent with the tone of Espiritu.
This half hour video presents eight very short works-in-progress by the Devised Theater Working Group, each introduced by the artist. The producers of this mini-festival within the festival tell us that these will be fully realized live performances on stage at the Public Theater in 2022. Some of these works, though, seem designed exclusively as videos; I couldn’t see how they would be translated to the stage (unless as “multimedia,” which would mean the performer would be there live standing in front of the video.) Coincidentally or not, the works I am most eager to see next year are generally the ones that didn’t make the videography their priority. Savon Bartley in “What in a Name,” stood in front of a mike and recited his poem trying to understand a father he never knew (“…a man whose intent was never have kids, but he did, and left them, with chips on their shoulders, to shoulder all that he did to women…”) Similarly, Justin Elizabeth Sayre sits in what looks like a corner booth in Chumley’s to recite an excerpt from “My Beatnik Youth,” a monologue by a 17 year old addict obsessed with the Beatniks who is trying to get released from rehab. Eric Lockley introduces “What We Forgot” as “an excerpt from my Afrofuturist play spanning planets and centuries,” which made me wary – and his videography is relatively ambitious. But the story he tells of a man named Oak on a slave ship, and the connection he makes to the present, is breathtaking.
Mia Rovegno’s introduction of “Elevator,” again made me wary — “a multimedia immersive performance that deconstructs the capitalist ritual of the elevator pitch.” But, despite that description, and for all the hyperactive video art in the excerpt, it also manages to be hilariously spot-on satire of tech speak and yet somehow also pleasing poetry.