Four cool fests bring the heat
BY SCOTT STIFFLER | BRAND NEW ANCIENTS South East London resident Kate Tempest’s raps are vivid, meticulously weaved observations that mine the divine from life’s unpleasant realities. For Tempest, who cut her teeth as a writer during a “wayward youth living in squats, hanging around on picket lines, rapping at riot cops and on the night bus home,” it’s the “everyday odysseys” that give an epic glow to this tale of multiple generations from two families. “See, there’s always been heroes and there’s always been villains,” says Tempest in a YouTube excerpt from the show. “And yes, the stakes may have changed, but really there’s no difference. There’s always been heartbreak and greed and ambition and bravery and love and trespass and contrition.” All shifting shoulders and closed eyes that give way to forceful stances and contemplative squints as she stalks the mic, Tempest’s delivery can come across as blunt to the point of curt — but her mashup performance style (hip hop rhythms, poetic rhymes, classical music riffs) is anchored by a deep, rage-leavening empathy for “the plight of the people who have forgotten their myths.” It’s what elevates her characters from the murk of everyday routine into the realm of “Brand New Ancients.”
The show plays St. Ann’s Warehouse after earning a Herald Angel Award, from its run at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The 27-year-old Tempest also drew critical accolades during an “Ancients” tour of prestigious London venues (including the Royal Court Theatre, the Young Vic and the Royal Opera House). Joined on stage by a live quartet (Raven Bush on violin, Natasha Zielazinski on cello, Jo Gibson on tuba and Kwake Bass on percussion and electronics), Tempest more than lives up to the hype that precedes her arrival in the states.
Also part of The Public Theater’s city-wide Under the Radar festival (spotlighting new theater from the U.S. and around the world): Performed in Spanish with English supertitles, “El Año en que Nací” (through Jan. 13, at La MaMa) features 11 Chileans born under Pinochet’s dictatorship, who don their parents’ clothes and reconstruct photos, letters and recordings. Playing at Japan Society through Jan. 12, “The Room Nobody Knows” (in Japanese with English supertitles) has Kuro Tanino’s Niwa Gekidan Penino theater company performing his tale of two brothers inhabiting a mysterious, dreamlike Tokyo apartment. “Helen & Edgar” (through Jan. 18, at the Public Theater) is written by, and stars, The Moth (storytelling slam) founder George Dawes Green. Helmed by longtime Moth artistic director Catherine Burns, it’s Green’s hilarious/heartbreaking tale of he and his sister’s strange childhood in Savannah and their mother’s struggle with madness.
“Brand New Ancients” is part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival (now through Jan. 19). Performances take place Jan. 10-11 and 15-18 at 8pm, Jan. 12 at 5pm and Jan. 19 at 7pm. At St. Ann’s Warehouse (29 Jay St. in DUMBO, Brooklyn). For tickets ($20), call 866-811-4111 or visit stannswarehouse.org. Also visit katetempest.co.uk. Find a full schedule, and info on “5 for $75” festival ticket packs, at undertheradarfestival.com.
SHE IS KING
Four decades after her game-changing victory over Bobby Riggs in 1973’s “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, “She is King” assesses the far-reaching impact of Billie Jean King on media, gender, sports culture, sexuality and celebrity. The staged reenactment of three interviews (conducted at the height of King’s athletic prowess and pop culture reach) also plays out, in real time, on nine extremely retro cathode ray tube television sets. Recreated by the cast are verbal volleys with CUNY-TV cable host James Day (1973), an appearance on Toni Tennille’s talk show (1980) and a 1981 sit-down with Barbara Walters (just before King was outed as a lesbian). King is portrayed by Laryssa Husiak, a member of the Obie Award-winning Two-Headed Calf and a founding member of its Dyke Division. A group of middle school students, who serve as the production’s run crew, underwent a workshop covering topics relevant to the play — including the history of women’s tennis and King’s efforts on behalf of equality and social justice.
“She is King” is part of Incubator Arts’ annual Other Forces festival, running through Jan. 26. Created to showcase innovative independent theater artists, its other productions include “Take Me Home,” an interactive live performance (for three audience members only) that takes place inside a cab, as it navigates the city streets. “I am an Opera” is a collection of arias drawn from creator Joseph Keckler’s accidental trip on hallucinogens. “#aspellforfaining” encourages audience members keep their smart phones on, then use them to tweet photos and videos — as a solo performer, a sound artist and a video artist draw on everything from “Hamlet” to “American Idol” to investigate the chaos of creation.
“She is King” is performed at 8pm on Jan. 10, at 5pm on Jan. 11, 18/19, 25/26 and at 7pm on Jan. 14/16 & 23/24. At the Incubator Arts Project (St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, 131 E. 10th St., corner of Second Ave.). For tickets ($18), call 866-811-4111 or visit incubatorarts.org.
First presented at Galapagos Art Space in 2009 as a song-cycle, then further developed in 2011 at The Kitchen, “Thumbprint” has its world-premiere as one of seven productions in the second annual PROTOTYPE: Opera/Theatre/Now festival (which presents fully realized chamber-sized pieces). Indo-American composer Kamala Sankaram (whose score features traditional Hindustani and Western classical music) sings the lead role of Mukhtar — the survivor of a 2002 gang rape committed as an act of retribution for her brother’s alleged “honor crime.” Based on interviews with Mukhtar, the libretto by Susan Yankowitz explores how family ties and tribal traditions influenced Mukhtar’s evolution from an illiterate, impoverished peasant to the human rights crusader (she was the first Pakistani woman to bring her attackers to justice) to founder/president of her own school. Following the Jan. 11 performance, Peter McCabe will moderate a panel on International Human Rights — whose members include “Thumbprint” creators Sankaram and Yankowitz as well as Maitreyi Das (Lead Social Sector Specialist, World Bank), Mohammed Naqvi (director of the 2006 Mai documentary “Shame”) and Shantha Rau Barriga (Director of Disability Rights, Human Rights Watch). Mukhtar Bibi joins the conversation via Skype.
Also featured in the PROTOTYPE festival (which is co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE): “Have a Good Day!” peers behind the chirpy, robotic greetings of shopping center cashiers to reveal their inner lives and personal dramas. “Paul’s Case” traces the defiant title character’s escape from repressive turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh to glamorous (but not necessarily nurturing) NYC. Auditory hallucinations and paranoia deceive and derange, in “Visitations.” The first part of that double bill, “Theotokia,” has a man’s consciousness assailed by the mother of God. In part two, “The War Reporter,” Pulitzer Prize-winning combat journalist Paul Watson is haunted by the voice of an American soldier whose corpse he photographed in the streets of Mogadishu. Elsewhere in the festival, two fallen angels pining for earthly pleasures are rescued — then held captive — by a middle-class couple who see the winged creatures as their ticket to wealth and fame. Based on classical world’s notion that different body fluids were linked to personality type (melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric), the Sky-Pony troupe delivers unique sets on consecutive nights, each inspired by one of the Four Humors. Beats and live looping mix with opera, pop, jazz and soul — in “Elizaveta,” an evening of stylistic shifts meant to unite the 19th and 21st centuries, via musical means.
“Thumbprint” is performed Jan. 10, 12, 14-18 at 7pm and Jan. 11 at 4pm. At Baruch Performing Arts Center (55 Lexington Ave.; enter on 25th St., btw. Lexington & Third Ave.). For tickets ($25, or $16.30 & $15, through PROTO pack festival pass), call 212-352-3101 or visit prototypefestival.org. For info on the PROTOTYPE co-founders, visit bethmorrisonprojects.org and here.org. PROTOTYPE productions also take place at HERE (145 Sixth Ave.), Brooklyn’s Roulette Theatre, Tribeca’s Trinity Church and The Public Theater/Joe’s Pub (both at 425 Lafayette St.).
Rub their face in too much wretched excess, and the people (plus an occasional elephant) will rebel — or at least become deeply resentful. That’s what prompted co-authors Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner to pen a novel whose title (“The Gilded Age”) was quickly co-opted as snarky slang for an America whose industrial czars, crooked politicians and newly minted leisure class enjoyed the fruits of cheap, plentiful, immigrant labor. Subtitled “A Tale of Today,” the 1873 satire of avarice could just as easily be an e-book with a 2014 copyright and a cover shot of Bill “Tale of Two Cities” de Blasio pledging a tax on the rich to feed the needs of the 99 percent.
Although he didn’t program the Gilded Stage Festival with the new mayor in mind, it’s not lost on Metropolitan Playhouse artistic director Alex Roe — whose socially conscious, history-centric East Village theater is poised to further stoke the flames of its 2013-2014 theme: Justice in America. “This period,” says Roe of the eerily familiar Gilded Age, “is one of extreme wealth and success for some people — and, following immigration and the Civil War, a time of real struggle for others, before progressives made social changes.” Serving as the ninth entry in their ongoing Living Literature series, the festival showcases nine new works by emerging artists dedicated to exploring the lives and times of American writers and creators.
No entry captures the era’s greed and cold calculation quite like “Edison’s Elephant.” A new play by David Koteles and Chris Van Strander, it centers on the ghastly, agonizing 1903 electrocution of a Luna Park pachyderm. When beloved Coney Island circus elephant Topsy responded to repeated abuse by killing his handler, famed inventor Thomas Edison, says Roe, “saw it as a chance to promote his reputation and knock other commercial purveyors of electricity” by executing the animal. Adding insult to injury (in the name of profit), Edison filmed the whole thing, and then released a short called “Electrocuting an Elephant.” Roe says the play’s “Rashomon”-like take on this dark, largely forgotten incident “captures the hubris of the age, and how it might go awry.”
Two Edith Wharton works are also featured in the festival: Michèle LaRue will present a dramatic reading of “Roman Fever.” A staged reading of Linda Selman’s new adaptation of the Wharton novella “Bunner Sisters,” notes Roe, showcases plenty of “excess wealth and social splendor, but set against the real perils of poverty, in a time that seemed to define itself by social success and the accrual of riches.” The premiere of Peter Judd’s “Gilt on the Gold” finds an aged Frederick Law Olmstead looking back at his life, and relating the “particular accidents” that led to his design of Central Park. Recalling “Frankenstein” in its gothic tone, Anthony P. Pennino’s adaptation of the 1899 Jack London short story “A Thousand Deaths” concerns a man who — believing he’s found the cure for death — tests his theory (over and over) on a single human guinea pig. “It’s London responding in his own way to a disconcerting world of industrial discovery,” says Roe, alluding to what is perhaps the Gilded Age’s most damaging legacy — the arrogance that comes from using technology to hold sway over others.
“Edison’s Elephant” plays Thurs., Jan. 16 at 7pm, Sun., Jan. 19 at 9pm, Fri., Jan. 24 at 9pm and Sat., Jan. 25 at 1pm. The Gilded Stage Festival plays daily, Jan. 13-28, at the Metropolitan Playhouse (220 E. Fourth St., btw. Aves. A & B). For a full schedule of festival event, and to order tickets ($18, $15 for students/seniors, $10 for children 10 & under), call 800-838-3006 or visit metropolitanplayhouse.org.