Experimental theater thrives at Radar

Edgy festival showcases surrealist talent

It was during the song about the sasquatch that it all began to make sense.

At a particularly surreal moment from his show “Transition,” performer Reggie Watts was manning the loop machine and crooning “Sasquatch!/In the middle of the night/You gave me a fright …” into the microphone over his own beatboxing. Behind him, the video projector played non sequiturs on a huge screen.

The song is weirdly catchy, and Watts, with his cloud of black hair and surprisingly beautiful voice, is loads of fun to watch as he belts the absurd lyrics. Wouldn’t it be strange if that’s what the future of the theater looks like?

Spending a week at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival can be a little like going on vacation to the psych ward at Bellevue. The series, timed to coincide with the Assn. of Performing Arts Presenters’ annual conference, is generally considered the creme de la creme of experimental theater, largely due to curator Mark Russell’s tireless city- (and globe-) hopping to find the best, least familiar work out there.

Way, way out there, in some cases: Only at UTR can you see a painstakingly re-enacted scene from “Teen Wolf”; a drama about Katrina starring Scarlett O’Hara; and a stuttering, anatomically correct pig-puppet sodomized with a copy of the New York Times.

Russell gives artists timely exposure in the hopes that APAP members will pick up a favorite show for further productions. Under the Radar, therefore, is sort of a preview of what the country’s braver presenting orgs will be putting on this year.

Seattle-based Watts’ Dadaist standup show may have been the most nakedly entertaining entry in the 2009 festival. Refreshingly free of the tired polemics that frequently stand in for courage, “Transition” reps the kind of thing Under the Radar does so well: It brings to an established New York venue a performer without much of a cultural footprint in the legit world.

Then there’s Rachel Chavkin’s the TEAM, a New York-based troupe that usually ends up premiering its shows in Edinburgh. “Architecting,” the group’s three-hour meditation on the troubles of post-Katrina New Orleans, scans a little like someone put at least three naturalistic plays about the Crescent City in a blender with “Gone With the Wind.”

The piece is politically engaged on a gratifyingly minute level — there’s no snark and surprisingly little self-indulgence given the show’s length. Moreover, “Architecting” (now playing to a full run at P.S. 122) rewards careful attention, something not all the fest’s entries withstand.

There’s more to love at this festival than can be described in a roundup based on seeing six of the available 15 shows: Pan Pan Theater’s new fairy tale creation, “The Crumb Trail,” which makes creative use of YouTube; Lemon Andersen’s wonderfully moving hip-hop autobiography “County of Kings: The Beautiful Struggle” — and probably more besides.

Upstarts like the TEAM, Watts and Andersen function as an interesting counterpoint to the UTR shows by older artists: Mabou Mines’ gorgeously designed two-play showcase “Pataphysics Penyeach” is obsessed with the theater and its various problems, itemizing them in the slighted tones almost exclusive to the established avant-garde.

Speaking from an unequaled place of privilege in the intellectual theater community, writer-director Lee Breuer and his actors (including the wonderful Ruth Maleczhech) fret about disenfranchisement and the decline of the American theater to packed houses of baby-boomer-plus converts.

Meanwhile, Watts, Chavkin and Andersen are actually demonstrating the innovations that can fix those problems: adroit use of technology; a clever sense of humor; and cultural literacy as opposed to board-book politics and canonical loyalty (a hard thing to abandon if you’re part of the canon, admittedly). These may be the solutions that will keep the theater from devouring itself over the next few years, and — hopefully — they’ll also gather enough of an audience to inspire commercial producers in new ways.

These shows are a far cry from most of what we’re seeing on Broadway and at the institutional nonprofits, but that’s a good sign — it’s gratifying that someone is trying the crazy things. And most of the crazy things are fairly cheap, incidentally.

As the lines between film, theater, standup and concert music continue to blur, venues intent on producing lavish revivals and expensive adaptations of movies are faced with increasingly smaller and older audiences of like-minded rich people. New York’s established theaters have two options as the form threatens to evolve out from under them: They can pray for strike-it-rich exceptions like “South Pacific” or “Billy Elliot,” or they can start singing the sasquatch song.

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