UNDER THE RADAR: FRANKENSTEIN, MINOR CHARACTER, THE EVOLUTION OF A SONERO
January 11, 2019
It was a dreary night when Mary Shelly accompanied her husband and fellow poet Percey Shelley to the home of writer Lord Byron. Storms kept a congenial group of friends in the house, and that’s where Ms. Shelley penned Frankenstein. Already depressed because of the loss of her baby girl, Shelley imagined a story of a monumental misfit who had a tender heart but uncontrollable, laboratory constructed strength.
The sketched out story of Shelley’s life and the writing of this monstrously popular story is told through the use of shadow puppets, puppets, projections and videos by the talented Manual Cieman Company. Presented during the annual APAP festival, Under-the Radar Festival draws arts professionals from around the world. This sets-up an opportunity for the artists to attract multiple presenters and organize a fruitful touring schedule.
Frankenstein, an incredibly intricate production is a marvel of visual elements. Created by Manual Cinema and adapted from the novel by Mary Shelly, members of the company collaborated on its realization with the primary concept by Drew Dir. Live actors zoomed from one end of the darkened stage to the other, feverishly moving stick figures and light fixtures. Characters danced across the white walls like Kara Walker’s panoramic cut-paper silhouettes to the atmospheric music by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman.
Despite the two-dimensional aspect of the images, the audience felt Shelley’s sadness--her despair and manic desire to write a story that captured her colleagues’ praise. Running over close to two hours, no intermission, the production is enviable but the story unspools on a single, theatrical note. Much of the energy went into the actual depiction of the storytelling rather than development of dramatic arc. That said, they deserve an award for the production’s visual elements.
For some reason, Chekhov’s 19th century Russian play Uncle Vanya never ceases to fascinate contemporary theater professionals. And so, New Saloon pays witty tribute to Chekhov in their “mash-up” of English translations featuring characters portrayed by multiple actors, sometimes speaking simultaneously. Settled on an aging estate in the Russian countryside, the quiet, hard working family members are disrupted when their sophisticated, urban relatives descended on the premises. Suddenly, mundane lives are pitched into emotional extremes not experienced in years.
The potency of the concept was most evident in the beginning when the tall blonde actor, Madeline Wise, began a deadpan delivery as the tree-hugging doctor who is a regular visitor to the estate. What was particularly exhilarating was the way she spoke just a few words punctuated by repeated minimal gestures—a hand opening and closing, eyes focusing on one person, turning away and back again. That unleashed a thrill because the words and gestures formed a provocatively syncopated rhythm that supplied the emotion. Soon the rest of the play’s outsized characters entered.
Gender roles switched constantly adding a sense of whimsy to this rendition of dysfunctional family dynamics. If a viewer is not familiar with “Uncle Vanya” there might be some confusion over the characters in Minor Character. However, everyone understood there was an old crotchety professor (played by the singular David Greenspan—the only single actor/role) married to a young beauty salivated over by all the adult men in the house. At times, Morgan Green’s direction pitted the actors into a genial contra dance: characters met up, and split apart bisected by the huge dining room table. But nothing else in the play reached the heights of Ms. Wise’s opening monologue.
One of the most upbeat productions of the Under the Radar Festival was The Evolution of a Sonero. Primarily a bio-musical, the theater piece is written and performed by Flaco Navaja who grabs the audience in the very first minutes and doesn’t let go until the calls for encore! Directed by Jorge B. Merced, the pace cooks with the help of the on-stage band The Razor Blades. Slim and dressed in a three-piece suit, Navajo wove together stories about life growing up in the Bronx. Shaped by his extended Puerto Rican family and an unforgiving urban decay, he struggled to shed skinny, geeky looks and in the process was tripped up by a fierce tango with drugs and alcohol.
What differentiated this from most solo performances was the introduction to Puerto Rican music: how it rose from the African diaspora, and how the clave formed the heartbeat of the Afro-Caribbean social music genres. Produced by the venerable Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, much of the program’s success is centered on Navajo’s charismatic presence, soaring voice and nimble dance body. In the end, it’s the music that solidified cultural identity, the spirit of perserverance and hope.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis