Trav S.D. on Downtown Theater

Things to see in January

By Trav S. D.

Some people begin their New Year with prayers for world peace or solemn resolutions to stop overeating. Having little confidence in the success of either of those projects, I have merely committed to informing readers about the most interesting or notable (the two don’t always overlap) shows happening in downtown theatres.

The month of January should disabuse anyone of the notion that downtown theater festivals are strictly summer affairs. No less than four will be kicking off this month, two of them on January 6.

The biggest and most established is the Under The Radar Festival, now in its sixth year. Produced and founded by Mark Russell, the former artistic director of P.S.122, Under the Radar bills itself as a “crash course in theatre that is exciting, independent, and experimental.” This edition features some 20 shows at 11 different downtown venues, an eclectic mix ranging from established New York institutions like the Martha Graham Company and Ping Chong and Company (hardly “under the radar” but we’ll let that pass) to international guests from Poland, France and the United Kingdom. The festival takes a “big tent” approach as to what constitutes theatre, and this year’s menu includes dance, puppetry and theatrical music groups, including two personal favorites of mine, both performing at the Public Theatre’s LuEsther Lounge: Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, a hilarious combination pirate-puppet show and rock group (Jan. 11) and the delightfully obnoxious Stumblebum Brass Band (Jan. 16).

Four of this year’s Under the Radar shows are being co-presented by another new-ish annual event, P.S. 122’s five year old COIL Festival, an “annual winter festival of contemporary performance featuring hits from past, present and future seasons.” (Why it’s called “COIL” is a tightly guarded secret – I gather it has more to do with the potential energy of artists than with dog poop.) Their co-productions with Under the Radar this year include “Ads” by Richard Maxwell and his NYC Players; the National Theatre of the United States of America’s “CHAUTAUQUA!;” Jerk (a glove-puppet show about a serial killer), and an adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope called “Gin & ‘It’,” taking place  at  3LD Art and Technology Center.

But more exciting to this correspondent by far is the festival’s revival of Axis Theatre’s “East Tenth Street: Portrait with Empty House,” a solo piece by the incomparable Edgar Oliver, one of my absolute favorite actors. In “East Tenth Street,” a monologue about his many decades in a rather legendarily decadent apartment building, Oliver manages (as always) to be at once hilarious, endearing, moving and creepy — just as I imagine God to be. Both festivals run until Jan. 17, and you can get more info at undertheradarfestival.com and ps122.org.

Opening on January 7 is a smaller but (pound for pound) undoubtedly stranger festival put on by Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre at the company’s home base in St. Mark’s Church. While the newly minted Other Forces festival only consists of three shows, it bodes well that among the presenters are the Brooklyn-based Sponsored by Nobody (whose new show “Behind the Bullseye”) is based on the experience of shopping at the Atlantic Avenue Target store); as well as Ryan Holspopple’s 31 Down company whose new hallucinatory soundscape “Assember Dilator” is about “x-ray vision and its consequences”. More dope at: ontological.com/otherforces. It runs through Jan. 16.

Not to be outdone, HERE Arts Center lets its resident artists strut their stuff in their annual Culturemart festival (January 11-31). This is a festival of emerging artists presenting works-in-progress in two-day runs, so don’t go expecting polish or pizzazz, although I wouldn’t rule out some shows displaying either or both. Particularly promising-sounding are Johari Mayfield’s burlesque/dance piece The “Venus Riff,” inspired by the real life story of the Venus Hottentott, an African woman displayed as a sideshow freak in 19th century England; and Kamala Sankaram’s “Miranda” — “a multi-media chamber opera where the audience becomes detective, judge and jury” in a format where “pop opera meets reality TV”. Go to HERE.org for more info.

January 7 marks the premier of “Lear” — the much-talked about version of the classic story (which predates Shakespeare) by avant-garde playwright Young Jean Lee, opening at Soho Repertory Theatre. Lee’s radical, non-linear stage technique has made a lot of waves in a short time with downtown hits like her most recent, ‘The Shipment.’ Fans of Lee’s style will not be disappointed to learn that “Lear” is in the vein of her past work, telling its story (though Lee doesn’t really “tell stories” in the conventional sense) without the actual presence of the title character in the play. “Lear’ will be at Soho Rep through January 31.

One of the more eagerly-anticipated downtown events this month (if only be me) has to be Classic Stage Company’s production of David Ives’ “Venus in Furs” — based on the eponymous novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (from whom we get the term masochism). Ives, initially best known for crazy comedies like “Polish Joke” and his collection of one acts (:All in the Timing”) has recently applied his comic talents to more mainstream Broadway fare like his recent adaptation of Mark Twain’s Is He Dead? And his current show “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.” One can only imagine what he’ll do with the cruelties and perversions of Sacher-Masoch, whose novel he has transplanted to a setting “backstage at an audition”. The CSC run is from January 13 through February 21.

Lastly, I would be remiss in my duty to humanity if I did not send you in the direction of Arlene’s Grocery on January 14, for that is the date one of my favorite neo-vaudevillians, ventriloquist Carla Rhodes is debuting her new full-length show, aptly named “The Continuing Story of Carla Rhodes.” In my view, Rhodes is the Savion Glover of vents, almost single-handedly injecting a notoriously uncool and backward-looking performance branch with a badly-needed kick in the ass. Don’t get me wrong; Carla is PLENTY old school — but she also has at least one of her dainty feet planted firmly in the current century, or at least the tail end of the last one (which is more than you can say about just about any other vent). Carla is, in short, a rock and roll ventriloquist.

The current piece purports to tell her life story, but we won’t be stinted on bits with her favorite “partners”, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and another dirty old Englishman, Cecil Sinclaire. She also promises to unveil her new rock band The Extravaganzas and a new character with the enticing name Herschel Ragbottoms. Unless I have pneumonia or a pulmonary embolism, I will be there. See you next month.