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Must-see shows at the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival

Artistic director Mark Russell tells us about the productions he's most excited about, as the fest returns to the Public Theater.

"Minefield" is among artistic director Mark Russell's picks

"Minefield" is among artistic director Mark Russell's picks at the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival.  Photo Credit: Mara Isaacs

While relatively few Broadway and Off-Broadway shows open each year in January, the month does play host to a number of theater festivals that celebrate experimental, multidisciplinary and international performance, the most notable of which is the Under the Radar Festival, which is now in its 15th year and takes place primarily at the Public Theater.

This year's event features the work of up-and-coming artists from nine countries, from Nigeria to the UK.

In a phone interview, Mark Russell, artistic director of Under the Radar, spoke about some of the shows in this year’s festival that he is especially excited about.

‘Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True’

“We really worked hard to get this one over here. It’s from Nigeria. We managed to get all the visas sorted out . . . It’s by this amazing young woman, Ifeoma Fafunwa. She was a fellow at Harvard . . . It has 10 amazing performers. All of these women are ‘Nollywood’ stars. Most of them are well known in the Nigerian film industry. They tell stories about the challenges of being a woman in Nigeria, which you can imagine are pretty complex and challenging. And there’s music. There’s singing. There’s movement. There’s amazing costumes . . . It’s a lot of what Under the Radar is about — finding these stories that are told in unusual ways, but they are real, honest, low to the ground stories, the stories we don’t hear on television or even on the internet sometimes. It’s about finding those disadvantaged, ignored voices and finding a platform for them.”

‘Frankenstein’

“It’s really the classic story of ‘Frankenstein,’ but told more through Mary Shelley’s eyes, and it’s told as shadow puppetry . . . Manual Cinema is a really inventive contemporary group. They are really reinventing shadow puppetry. They are forging a new form of theater from an old form. There is a lot of influence from graphic novels and comic books, as well as the old features of shadow puppetry. You are sort of seeing them make the show as you watch the show, with overhead projectors and video and other things going on. And at the end of the show, they allow people to look at the puppets and see how they do it.”

‘Minefield’

“It’s about the Falklands and Malvinas War in the ‘80s. It was made by soldiers from the Argentinian side as well as the British side. These are people who were facing each other with guns during that war, and they’ve reconstructed their experiences, the aftermath, their memories, and at one time they become a rock band together. It’s a really moving, powerful show about war and its aftermath and redemption . . . Lola Arias is an Argentinian artist who has been making work internationally and has done work in our festival before. She was the one who had the idea to get these veterans in the same room. She is the only one I know of who would be brave enough to do that.”

‘Chambre Noire’

“Another puppet show, but with life-size puppets. They’re manipulated onstage by a couple of people . . . This is the story of Valerie Solanas, the woman who infamously shot Andy Warhol but was also one of the seminal people of the feminist movement. She wrote this thing called ‘SCUM Manifesto’ and was way ahead of her time and was quite an amazing character. She ended up perishing in San Francisco eventually, and this is sort of from her deathbed, looking back at her whole life. It has a composer who is right onstage making music . . . This is going to be amazing. Every festival needs a little touch of real beauty and this one is heartbreakingly beautiful.”

‘Evolution of a Sonero’

“By Flaco Navaja, who is a young man from the Bronx who has been an actor, been in lots of ‘Law & Order’ episodes and lots of movies. He performed on Broadway as part of ‘Def Poetry Jam,’ but he has also been trained as a salsa singer, and this is his life broken down into a salsa song . . . There is so much joy in this show. It’s what your soul needs right now. What we all need right now is a little salsa.”

‘Weightless’

“This is over at the BRIC [House] and it’s by the Kilbanes, which is a band from San Francisco. It’s sort of country-punk, and they are telling a story from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses,’ and it kind of happens in a bar with music. It’s sort of like a band gig and it’s theater.”

‘Ink: A Piece for Museums’

“We’re working with the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a piece by a couple of guys named James & Jerome. It is sort of an art lecture in the form of a musical performance, including jazz music as well as stories . . . They’re real nerds. They’ve been through the collection and they’re taking you on a tour of their favorite pieces.”

‘[50/50] Old School Animation’

“The piece came up through our ‘Incoming!’ series, where young artists develop works in progress through workshops. The creators are Peter Mills Weiss and Julia Mounsey . . . It is one of the most frightening — subtly frightening — things I’ve seen this year. I don’t want to give it away. It makes you think about the existence of real evil.”

‘Minor Character’

“It’s four different translations of ‘Uncle Vanya’ mashed on top of each other in an hour and a half, one of those being from Google Translate.”

Under the Radar Festival runs through Jan. 13 at the Public Theater and several partner venues. For more info, visit publictheater.org.

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