Broadway shows are closing right and left this month, but if you’re like me, Broadway shows weren’t at the top of your list anyway. It just so happens that January is also the month when some of the best new performance work out there is on display as part of festivals that have no interest at all in upholding traditions. The artists involved in these festivals rarely wear less than three hats, be they writers, musicians, sculptors, punk rockers, rappers, puppeteers, dancers, or magicians, and their work generally defies the usual presentation of simple narratives. Plus, the ticket price for all of them ranges from $15-20, some featuring even better deals if you see more than one show.
The best fest of the month, if not the entire year, is the four-year-old Under the Radar (UTR) Festival, organized by Mark Russell for the Public Theater. This festival has become a seriously big deal in a relatively short time and there’s no sign that Mark Russell (former Artistic Director at P.S.122) has lost any of his spot-on insight into what’s good and interesting. This year there’s a much more international line-up, plus a lot more shows. Featured artists have flown in from the UK, Korea, Germany and the Netherlands, with others literally phoning in from India. Among the Americans, there’s quite a range: Reggie Watts returns, this time with his BMX on the stage with him; punk rockers World/Inferno Friendship Society team up with another UTR alum, Jay Scheib; Marc Bamuthi Joseph mixes it up with help from DJ Excess and Tommy Sheperd (known to many as Soulati); the company called TEAM, who have found much success abroad, bring their latest show home; not to mention Mabou Mines, one of the diehard group of old-school experimenters who refuse to be counted out.
There’s little that this year’s UTR shows have in common save that, like the participating artists, they all fit into more than one category. One of the most exciting shows in the line-up is Call Cutta in a Box. While you do have to schlep all the way uptown to the Göethe-Institut it is truly an experience. From the German group Rimini Protokoll, which specializes in “reality” theater, the work sends you alone into a room where you find a ringing phone with a call center employee in Calcutta at the other end. What unfolds is a strange and remarkable experience. And the good news is that this one, like a couple of the others, will be running beyond the short run of the festival, so even if the UTR run is already sold out, you’ll still be able to catch it. All the info for the fest is at undertheradarfestival.com.
The next festival of great new work is HERE Arts Center's Culturemart, which will actually be hosting two of the UTR shows this year — Ray Lee’s Siren and Corey Dargel’s Removable Parts. HERE works with artists who are typically a little less road-tested than the ones at UTR, and while their aesthetic is also genre-bending, a lot of their work tends to lean very heavily on the media side of mixed-media. But the somewhat bigger risks that HERE takes can really pay off when the show is good. Lee and Dargel’s works promise to be polished and savvy — I saw a chunk of Dargel’s show when it was still in progress last year and can promise that you will be entertained. But it’s some of the newer voices that sound most intriguing, particularly Ruth Sergel and Peter von Salis’ Alchemy of Light and Johari Mayfield’s Venus Riff. With a bevy of other acts on the bill, it’ll be hard to choose in this group. All show info is listed at here.org.
And lastly is Labapalooza at St. Ann's Warehouse, which will feature some of the best experimental puppeteers working today. A couple of the artists who have participated in Labs past are being featured in this year’s Culturemart, among many other venues, so you know these people have talent. Plus, avant-garde puppets are becoming extremely sexy again, with the reigning ringleader Basil Twist taking a break after a near six-month sold-out run of his show with Joey Arias. Labapalooza is on a much smaller scale than the other two fests mentioned here and lets you sample a handful of artists in each of the two different shows running during the five-day event, relieving you of the pressure of choosing a single show. With this one, there’s really no way to go wrong. Check it out at stannswarehouse.org.