Theater festivals fire up a cold New York

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — Listening to Supreme Court justices question lawyers doesn't sound like the stuff of great theater. But somehow it is — in the hands of one of the city's most acclaimed companies.

Elevator Repair Service — the group that performed F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" in its entirely over eight hours — returns this month with a new experiment: Re-enacting the 1991 oral arguments of a high court case about the legality of nude dancing in Indiana.

The show, "Arguendo," will be one of dozens of independent and experimental theatrical pieces from across the globe being mounted in lower Manhattan in the coming weeks. January in New York is when you can see a play about the Indian deity Ganesh, a one-man "Hamlet" or take in a 24-hour-long concert or 12-hour show.

In "Arguendo," four members of Elevator Repair Service play eight of the court's nine justices as well as the two opposing lawyers. The actors rigorously follow the transcript — they even cough and include "umms" heard on tapes of the argument — but they also move about the stage in choreographed rolling office chairs.

"I saw in this case a combination of a kind of entertaining back-and-forth and also something that really pressed some genuinely intellectually stimulating questions," said director John Collins, who helped create Elevator Repair Service in 1991.

During a recent rehearsal, the actors went through their paces, citing tongue-twisting legal jargon and a command of the issues. Except at one point when Mike Iveson, who was playing Justice Antonin Scalia, said, "Am I correct in my understanding of what Indiana law is? That there is an exception to the noodling law somehow for artistic performances?"

The room burst into laughter. He had said "noodling" instead of "nudity."

"The NOODLING laws?" asked fellow actor Susie Sokol with a grin.

"Isn't that catfishing?" joked Kate Scelsa.

"Yes, my only problem is with public noodling," said a smiling Iveson, before repeating the line correctly.

A dozen pieces, including the Elevator Repair Service show, are slated for the Under the Radar Festival hosted by The Public Theater. Running from Wednesday-Jan. 20 at the company's newly refurbished downtown home, the festival includes artists from seven countries, including Iran, Belarus, the Netherlands, China, Japan and Australia. This year, all the shows will be at the Public instead of scattered across the city as they were when the building was being renovated.

"We have only 12 things this year. We didn't go crazy — though some of them do last 11 hours," Mark Russell, the director of the annual festival, said with a laugh. "The festival is going to be pretty special this year — it's all under one roof."

Some of the highlights include "Ganesh Versus the Third Reich" by the Back to Back Theatre company from Australia, in which the elephant-headed god Ganesh travels through Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika, an ancient Hindu symbol. "It's visually beautiful, and then there are so many layers in this show," Russell said.

The acclaimed edgy troupe Belarus Free Theatre, whose members had to sneak out of Belarus to perform "Being Harold Pinter" in America last year are back with a new piece. "The secret police are still hassling them, and we're just crossing our fingers that they get out in one piece again," Russell said.

Bring a comfy pillow if you plan to catch Nature Theater of Oklahoma's "Life and Times: Episodes 1-4," an 11-hour story of a life. Part I is a ukulele opera, but Russell isn't worried about the sound of that scaring anyone away. "Believe me, you'll be hooked and scream to get a ticket to the full marathon," he said.

There's also "C'est du Chinois," which is challenging in another way — it's performed completely in Mandarin with no supertitles. And "Hamlet, Prince of Grief," featuring Iranian actor Afshin Hashemi using household objects and children's toys in his retelling of Shakespeare's classic in Farsi.

"It's only 30 minutes. It's only one man. But it's one of the strongest interpretations of that story I've seen," Russell said. "It just hit you like a punch."

In addition to Under the Radar, the acclaimed theater company Performance Space 122 already has kicked off its annual COIL festival, boasting 10 theater and dance pieces until Jan. 19 that tackle everything from Frankenstein to Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull." There are also 15 workshop performances at HERE's Culturemart starting Jan. 28, with topics ranging from the story of a transvestite prostitute to another about a woman's cyborg pet.

All the festivals are hoping to take advantage of the thousands presenters, producers, vendors, managers, artists and donors who descend on the city for the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters convention, which kicks off this year on Friday.

The show by Elevator Repair Service was born out of Collins' own personal interest in constitutional law. The case it is based on — Barnes vs. Glen Theatre — was one of Collins' favorites, bringing up everything from humor to profound questions: Does a state law against nudity violate the First Amendment? What is dance? What is live performance?

"Something that has always interested me is that fuzzy line between theater as an art form — something that you make — and theater that's just something happening," Collins said.

The show is subversive, thought-provoking, sometimes silly and fascinating — all typical attributes of the company. But how far will it go? Will any of the actors strip down to illustrate the case?

"Are we going to be going to be doing any naked dancing ourselves?" Collins said, chuckling playfully. "This is a work in progress so I think there may be some experiments on that front still to come."