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At Under the Radar, Theater That Jumps Right Off the Page

“A story,” the director Yngvild Aspeli said, “is something that makes us connect to each other, something that manages to go beyond time or cultural difference.”

Theater, even in its more experimental corners, has long been in the business of telling stories. At this year’s Under the Radar festival, the Public Theater’s annual survey of avant-garde theater and performance in New York, some of these stories may seem familiar. Half a dozen of the main works are deliberately in dialogue with literary classics and ephemera, from sources as diverse as Mark Twain’s satirical monologues, James Joyce’s erotic letters, the Epic of Gilgamesh and “Antigone.”

“I’m interested in the contemporary as the ancient comes through it,” Mark Russell, who founded and programs the festival, said. “And I was very moved by these primal theater impulses and primal texts.”

Running through Jan. 22 at the Public and five partner venues, this is the first iteration of Under the Radar since 2020. The 2022 festival was canceled just weeks before opening because of an upsurge in Covid-19 cases. Though somewhat less international than in years past (an acknowledgment of the difficulty and expense of obtaining visas for artists), it still represents a substantial array of narrative, style and tone. Aspeli’s piece, for example, an adaptation of “Moby-Dick,” is performed by 50 puppets and an underwater orchestra.

Annie Saunders and Jesse Saler in “Our Country.”Credit…Gema Galiana

Not all of these projects were conceived during the pandemic, but even those dreamed up before it seem intent on finding language — textual and visual — to apply to this uncertain cultural moment. Much of that language happens to be literary, and it centers on themes of isolation and community. While several of the programmed works survey grief and loss, others offer alternatives, such as friendship and pleasure. Some do both.

“Perhaps in a moment where we’re in crisis, we can use this past poetics to bring us joy and relief and connection,” said Rachel Mars, the creator of the performance piece “Your Sexts.” (The show has a longer title, but it is, like many sexts, unprintable.)

The New York Times spoke to artists associated with six of this year’s shows about the literary works that inspired them and how the pages of the past speak to the present. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

‘Our Country’

Inspiration: Sophocles’ “Antigone”

Annie Saunders, co-creator and performer: As a person who struggles with self-belief, I’m interested in “Antigone,” in the idea of believing in yourself that much. The other thing that really interests me is the brother-sister dynamic, having a brother who you feel you have to save. My brother has a criminal history. He’s actually great now. But for many, many years, that was the dynamic. I spent a few days with my brother in the summer of 2016 and made about 10 hours of tape of us talking to each other about “Antigone,” our childhood, criminality, the law. That became a major part of the show.

“Antigone” is an anchor. I always come back to that core story dealing with fundamental human themes about right and wrong, self-belief, familial obligation. These are core human experiences.

‘Otto Frank’

Inspiration: “The Diary of Anne Frank”

Roger Guenveur Smith, creator and performer: I was invited to a theater festival in Amsterdam. I went to the Anne Frank House. I was very inspired and very moved. I’m always trying to bring the past into the present moment. The idea that Otto Frank should come to know his daughter through that diary, especially having lost her the way that he lost her, must have been an extraordinarily daunting exercise. I thought that would be something worth pursuing, because of this ongoing crisis that we’re still engaged in.

The fundamental challenge is: How does a man reverse the natural order of things and create a memorial for his daughter? To simultaneously serve the living and the dead is the great challenge for Otto Frank and for many of us, who are in the current moment, dealing with loss.

‘Your Sexts’

Inspiration: The erotic letters of James Joyce, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, etc.

Rachel Mars, creator and performer: I was on a residency. Brexit had just happened. It took the wind out of my sails creatively. Then Scott Sheppard [the writer and performer] was like, “I have something to cheer you up.” He read me this James Joyce 1909 letter. I was bowled over by the explicitness, the poetics, the imagery, how much it was all about butts. It was super life-affirming.

I began this search for who else was writing these letters. I worked with two sexologists. It was obviously more difficult to find the women and the queer women, because history, but it was easier than I thought. There’s an illicitness to it, definitely. It does feel like opening a crack into people’s private lives. But there’s this sanctity to it, a kind of respect.

‘KLII’

Inspiration: Mark Twain’s “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” Patrice Lumumba’s independence speech

Kaneza Schaal, creator, co-director and performer: My practice is about remembering. Today, we look at a figure like Leopold [the Belgian king who presided over atrocities in his administration of the Congo Free State] with mock horror, his atrocities stun and outrage. But there are new Leopolds every day. For me, this was a way of exorcising this evil. I’m interested in looking inward and looking outward, exorcising these catastrophic figures and catastrophic events.

Christopher Myers, co-director and designer: Mark Twain was interested in the Congo, and he understood the relationship between the oppression of Africans there and the oppression of Africans at home. This text of Mark Twain was in line with the internationalism and cross-cultural, cross-pollination that has inspired so many anticolonial causes. It’s about seeing not only the histories of these specific texts, but also how these texts bump up against each other. One of the things that theater does really well is allow you to rub a text against other texts.

‘Moby Dick’

Inspiration: Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick”

Yngvild Aspeli, director and puppet maker: This story, even though it’s an old story, it touches on these things that go beyond time. Out on the sea hunting a whale with a harpoon, or lost in our cyber world, human beings are still tackling the same issues. We use this older story as a mirror, a prism.

Our inner struggles are somehow always the same, the questions are the same: the complexity of being human, how we struggle with our inner demons, how we try to figure out our place in society, existential questions of life and death and everything that lies in between. The mysteries of life.

‘King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild’

Inspiration: the Epic of Gilgamesh

Ahmed Moneka, creator and performer: I’m from Iraq, born in Baghdad. I grew up with this myth. I was exiled. I ended up in Toronto. Jesse became my first friend in the theater scene. The parallel to that is the relationship between Gilgamesh and his best friend Enkidu.

Jesse LaVercombe, creator and performer: We’re toggling between this contemporary story and this totally ancient, sometimes cartoonish, sometimes tragic epic.

Seth Bockley, creator and director: I didn’t want to just riff on the themes. I wanted that story retold. There’s something sacred about that. We need each other to get through the world. That’s the Gilgamesh and Enkidu story.

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