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

The title is a palindrome: it reads the same backwards and forwards. The show too goes backward and forward — or actually, forward and then backward. The first entry in the annual Under the Radar Festival, “Are we not drawn onward to new erA” is an odd if impressively-executed exercise.

It begins with a spot light on a lone, small tree, which we soon notice has a single apple on it. A woman appears, then a man, who plucks the apple, and hands it to the woman, who takes a bite. 

Another man joins this Edenic scene on stage, uproots the tree and puts it in a clay pot, then destroys the tree branch by branch, while the first man hammers the pot to pieces. 

This is all mute and slow-going. By mid-point in the 75-minute show, the stage is covered with colored plastic bags, the air completely filled with stage smoke, and the six-member cast has both assembled a huge golden statue (inspiring thoughts of the Oscars) and then destroyed it (which might suggest Exodus)  

In the second half, everybody and everything goes backwards to the beginning; The man who cracked the pot puts it back together, the woman uneats the apple, etc. The reversal is meticulous, clever, at times visually spectacular,  and (spoiler alert) cinematic: The actors are live on stage in the first half, and projected on screen, convincingly lifelike, in the second. Kudos to Philip Aguirre for his “scenography,” and to Jeroen Wuyts and Babette Poncelet for their lighting, video and sound design. (Fewer kudos to William Basinski for his repetitive score.)

Devised by the 30-year-old Belgian avant-garde company Ontroerend Goed, the show made its debut in 2019 in Europe, where it was heralded for what was seen as its serious message about the environment.  As the current marketing blurb puts it: “You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube… Or undo the damage that humans have inflicted on the earth.”

But the point feels an obvious one to me, and it’s made in a way that seems unlikely to inspire theatergoers to go home and sign right up for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The few words the performers speak in the show don’t add any urgency or insight. They are either banal phrases in English (that are also, for some reason, captioned, perhaps to compensate for the European accents?) or literal gibberish (also with European accents, but without captions.) 

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Ontroerend Goed (which is Dutch for “Moving Good.”) Everything is well-intentioned. Even the show’s title, which is constructed to be a  palindrome, isn’t quite fluent English, is it?  Similarly, there are moments of the reversal that are funny, even mesmerizing, but the set-up for it doesn’t always flow. I won’t call it tedious, but during much of the time, I was sorry I wasn’t home watching the tenth and eleventh votes for Speaker of the House.  

“Are we not drawn onward to new erA” is being presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space through January 8

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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