Spirit of the Age

Jess Barbagallo on the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival

A scene from Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran. Javaad Alipoor, Parivash Akbarzadeh. Photo: Peter Dibdin.

BEFORE SITTING DOWN AT MY DESK for the inaugural evening of the Public Theater’s digital edition of its annual Under the Radar Festival, I scroll through my phone, looking at costumed marauders storming the Capitol Building. The pictures depict smiling Vikings, Confederate and Revolutionary war soldiers, Captain America as a paratrooper holding a straw broom. Is he a warlock, or a street-sweeper? There are enough mixed metaphors for heroism to make your head explode, and I am struck by how desperate people are for cosplay, their imaginations totally warped by popular fictions.

It’s not the most fortunate pre-show for Chile’s Teatro Anónimo’s Espíritu, an allegorical ramble into a sinister night. The thirty-minute program opens with the three company members physically entangled in dim light, plotting to trap a “faceless enemy” (presumably capitalism) in an airless bottle and demand of it: “What good is such greed, when you are drowning in a wine cork?” The trio of sexy existentialists live somewhere between Macbeth’s witches and the blasé protagonists of Sartre’s No Exit, except writer-director-performer Trinidad González chews gum in lieu of smoking. It’s immediately evident that they shot their performance in a large black box or soundstage, and the teleplay that follows is textbook-good; the spare space makes for a minimalist set. Using nothingness as material, the actors construct scenarios from thin air like sculpted improvisation. A man swings from some scaffolding; a woman approaches and he accuses her of trying to vandalize his car, then invites her to lick his face. Midway through the show—after having appeared as different everyday people engaged in heightened meditations on paranoia, cruelty, and financial precarity—the company comes together to play a New Wave band, linking the vignettes as part of a hellish cabaret.

But how does the slickness of Espíritu—its beautiful performances captured on high-definition film—operate in relation to the Technicolor nightmare of an attempted coup? The show suggests that poetry is the only way out of darkness, and for me it initially rang out like an empty truism. Watching a recent episode of Democracy Now, I found myself schooled by Filipino sociologist Walden Bello, an expert on counterrevolutions, who remarked that the first images of the U.S. insurrection reminded him of the Chilean coup of 1973 when right-wing gangs, backed by the CIA, forced a military intervention to overthrow the democratically-elected socialist, President Salvador Allende. It’s knowledge like this that reminds me of my own narrow perspective, and makes me want to watch Espíritu again—a luxury afforded by the fact that the festival tickets are free.

A scene from Teatro Anónimo’s Espiritu. Photo: Felipe Fredes.

Under the Radar is a New York theater institution, featuring an array of boundary-pushing artists who renovate the form via new media and politically-focused content. “Boundary-pushing” is a somewhat relative term here; even the “difficult” work is so coherent and meticulously assembled, it seems to gesture towards avant-gardism while avoiding the dissemination of weirder cultural production. Because this year’s festival is online, the prior readymade tensions produced by live art are obscured by the obliteration of a shared space in favor of a shared platform; UTR is reduced to just one more tab on a browser. There are exceptions: Interactive projects like 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call or Piehole’s Disclaimer address the issue by gently forcing the sustained presence of their audience members, the former through a mediated phone call with a stranger, the latter offering up an anti-war cooking show that evolves into a live (but scripted) game of Clue.

Also on offer is a smorgasbord of shorts produced by Incoming!, UTR’s incubation arm, which  presents up-and-coming theater artists under the rubric of the Devised Theater Working Group. (Again, “up-and-coming” is relative as some of these artists have been producing plays, dances, and cabaret in New York for years.) The cohort will present longer work-in-progress showings in 2022, but for now they’ve made three-minute teasers of those works that all look attractive, smart and seemingly optimistic, and that vacillate between critical and irreverent. Performer Mariana Valencia renovates a pair of pants in Edna’s Best Friend Jeans, while in a video rich with layered effects that explore “choreographies of the Internet,” Nile Harris (neo huxtable) asks the question: “Do I sound Black to you?” (A Gen-Z’er who I recommended the showcase to described this particular piece as “stressful.”) Miranda Haymon (aka “bb brecht”) produced a catchy pop anthem—ich liebe zu lange—with musical assistance from Dante Green. Haymon describes the work as an exploration of the relationship between love and labor, suggesting that Instagram and TikTok might be the perfect stages for reinvigorating epic theatre as a vital mode of cultural critique. Using a diminutive Brecht as an avatar, she sings a sexy-nerdy ditty with wonderful German wordplay about finding intimacy in the Golden Age of the Transactional:

            Gifts, flowers, time, energy,

            Gifts, flowers, time, energy,

            Depositing emotion like an IRA

            Max contribution hit it everyday

            Slide it to him a schlange

            Yeah, he got me good with his schlange

            Yeah, he choked me kein Sprache.

            He suck on my Sprache.

            Next morning, bis dann, ja?

            He ghosting dasvidaniya …

 And so forth. Hardly an inspiring snapshot, but as Brecht reflected in 1954 on Berlin’s misguided reception of Mother Courage and Her Children (1949): “Suffering does not transform a sick man into a physician.” Then again, how great is a doctor who speaks in riddles?

Javaad Alipoor and Kirsty Housley’s Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran is a dual-platform work that asks participants to use Instagram to flesh out the true story of the ill-fated Iranian lovebirds Mohammad Hossein Rabbani-Shiraziand and Parivash Akbarzadeh—played by Alipoor and Peyvand Sadeghian respectively—who perished in a highly-publicized 2015 car crash in Tehran. What unfolds (backwards) is a manic autopsy report of a privileged boy and his middle-class girlfriend against the backdrop of Iran’s fundamentalist political economy. It stayed with me: the hopelessness precipitated by Hossein’s gross wealth—and the echoes to be found in so much contemporary art devoted to examining the psychological ramifications of conspicuous consumption—perverse proof that “value” is just one more cruel construction of the reigning one-percent paradigm. Alipoor used the “scroll down” as a reminder that history is a process of accumulation, that the digital archive is evidence that ghosts are always ready for reanimation.

A scene from Inua Ellams's Borders & Crossings. Inua Ellams. Photo: Caleb Femi.

Ghosts of all sorts were in abundance that evening. During the talkback, dramaturg Morgan Jenness recounted in the chat how Alipoor’s piece reminded them of their decade’s work with Iranian expat Reza Abdoh, an artist known for his “theater of cruelty” style tactics, and I began to wonder if the digital splintering (or obliteration) of attention—don’t forget it was Brecht who claimed art is a hammer—constitutes an act of cruelty to theater. I attended Nigerian-British playwright-poet Inua Ellams’s Borders and Crossings, comprising four texts: “Fuck / Borders,” “Fuck / Border Guards,” “Dolphins,” and “Ike / Rust.” Together they create a mosaic that documents the hardships and resilience of African migrants seeking refuge in Europe, traveling brutal stretches of desert and water to find tentative safety from religious persecution and conscription. During the livestream event, Ellams cited inspirations ranging from John Keats to Kahlil Gibran to Wole Soyinka in response to a lovely question typed into the chat box from an audience member: “Your concept of self, is it built through poetry?” But I was only half-able to follow his reply since the chat was inundated by frantic complaints about an echo. The festival organizers explained over and over that audiences should exit YouTube and follow the Zoom link at the bottom of the show page so their browsers would not have two versions of the event playing at once. I felt compelled to assist a confused guest who arrived late, missing the show entirely, so I sent a text about how to arrange a ticket to the next performance . . . to the entire group. The guest continued to message me privately, worried that the same fate might befall their viewing of Alicia Hall Moran’s the motown project the following night. Before I could reply, we lost our connection.