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Diving Back Under The Radar Inside this year's festival of cutting-edge theatre

By ERIC GRODE

How do you prefer your cutting-edge theatre? As a 30-minute Hamlet adaptation in Farsi? As an 11-hour exploration of an ordinary life? Or how about as a Belarussian riff on the radical novelist Kathy Acker?


Whatever your experimental taste, the Public Theater will once again feel like home for 12 days in January.

That's when the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference will bring more than 3,500 cultural tastemakers to New York, and the Under the Radar festival will once again ply these men and women with an intensely curated cornucopia of international theatre.

Longtime Under the Radar attendees---this is its ninth year---will recognize several of the groups that the Director of The Public's Under the Radar festival, Mark Russell, has invited back.

"This edition does sort of show the maturity of the festival, in that we have a lot of people who needed to be here again," Russell says. "But it needs to be balanced, and I think we've done that this year with some new voices."


Among the returnees are Nature Theater of Oklahoma, which will present the 11-hour Life and Times: Episodes 1-4, and Belarus Free Theatre, which continues to perform in the totalitarian nation of Belarus despite the specter of imprisonment (for its audiences) and worse (for its creators). As occurred with the group's last visit in 2011, Russell says, some of the company members will need to be smuggled out of Belarus in the trunks of cars before they can come to New York. "They've recently had a couple visits by the police, and we're very worried about them," Russell says.

While he makes a point of not assembling festivals around a specific theme, Russell often finds patterns in any given year's offerings, and 2013 is no exception. "To me, it all keys off Ganesh and the Third Reich," which is being presented by Australia's Back to Back Theatre. "Like a lot of pieces this year, it deals with the rights of people over images and the rights of people who are considered outliers to speak."

The new Belarus Free Theatre piece, Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker clearly fits that definition, as does Arguendo, a First Amendment-themed work-in-progress being presented by Elevator Repair Service.


Russell relishes the chance to provide these theatre companies with such a prominent and potentially valuable platform: "There's no question that I want the greater artistic community to fall in love with these artists." With that in mind, he names two pieces---he calls them "secret weapons"---that may lack the marquee value of Elevator Repair Service or Nature Theater of Oklahoma, but are richly deserving of attention.

"One of them is C'est de Chinois, which is all in Mandarin," he says. "There are no supertitles, but by the end, people kind of understand it. And even more important, they understand the dynamics of these characters. I'm also really excited about Leev Theater Group from Iran and their Hamlet, Prince of Grief. It's a powerful little shot of a piece."

Over the last nine years, Under the Radar has grown to the point where it now has a year-round office at the Public. But this year's festival also has a smaller footprint, both in terms of number of shows and locale. While it has in the past expanded to arts venues all over downtown Manhattan, including La MaMa and HERE, this year's events will be confined entirely to the five-theatre Public complex.

What will this trend mean for the following year, which will mark a decade of Under the Radar? How will the festival keep the influx of familiar faces from calcifying into an assemblage of what qualified as cutting-edge theatre from years earlier? "We're not going to let moss grow on us," Russell says. "You have to keep questioning yourself." And while he hints at (as yet undisclosed) innovations for 2014, all he'll say for now is this: "The way I'm looking at it is that next year is going to be all about the future."

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Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University's Goldring Arts Journalism Program
Photo form C'est du Chinois by Raquel Belli