At Under the Radar, Stories Unfold via Sexts, Tweets and Puppeteers
‘Your Sexts Are ____: Older Better Letters’
Through Sunday. Running time: 1 hour.
The art of talking dirty has withered of late. Or so Rachel Mars sets out to demonstrate in “Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters,” her filthy, funny yet eventually cloying performance piece dressed in the incongruous drag of a lecture.
As evidence of the downturn, Mars compares some cherry-picked examples of epistolary smut with actual sexts she has solicited online. But do electronic acquaintances really stand a chance against the likes of James Joyce in full flower? Especially when the acquaintances are present only in the form of screenshots and Joyce gets rapturously read aloud?
Though occasionally non-gross (“If you were here rn in my car what would we be doing?”) and on several occasions eliciting clever responses (“Probably arguing”), the sexts aren’t very sexy. Instead, as Mars’s presentation makes plain, they are dully goal-oriented, like Slack messages setting up meetings. They take no interest in the process of arousal or the way exquisite, elaborate and even embarrassing language can be part of it.
Joyce, on the other hand, writing in 1908 to his lover (and later wife) Nora Barnacle, spins arias of sexual and scatological rapture that go so far past pornography as to crash the gates of literature. The man seems to have been unblushable — and the woman, too, though her responses have been lost and can only be imagined (as the show in fact does) by implication.
The recovery of women’s sexual voices, especially queer ones, is Mars’s deeper theme here, a theme to which she lends some autobiographical muscle. Yet in doing so, and in moving from Joyce to the fevered Frida Kahlo, the cosmic Georgia O’Keeffe, the grand Radclyffe Hall and the prim Eleanor Roosevelt, her original sexts-versus-letters argument begins to fray.
For one thing, those women’s letters are too romantic to be dirty. Then too, they are not the writers that Joyce, or for that matter Gertrude Stein, were. When Stein, in a letter to Alice B. Toklas, says she wants to treat her “wifie” to “an entire cow,” you don’t know whether “cow” is a pet word for “orgasm” or an actual pet. Either way, it’s brilliant, and you may wish she’d written it to Roosevelt. JESSE GREEN
Through Saturday. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.
Weathered and wild-haired, Ahab is a grizzled sea captain on the hunt, dragging his crew across oceans in search of his particular prey: the whale who took half his leg.
Now Ahab inhales deeply, scenting in the salt air the presence of his nemesis.
“It is Moby Dick,” he says. “I am sure of it!”
In swims the white leviathan — not the lithe, tormenting beast of Ahab’s vengeance-soaked fantasies but a tattered, battle-worn creature with moldering flesh and a lumbering strength that’s no less fearsome for its gracelessness. He takes Ahab’s whole ship in his dagger-toothed mouth and claims decisive victory.
Apologies if that plot point is a spoiler, but it is impossible to ruin with mere description the experience of the French-Norwegian company Plexus Polaire’s exquisite “Moby Dick,” a large-scale puppet adaptation of the Herman Melville classic. From its first moment on the vast N.Y.U. Skirball stage, when glittering fish appear, their tails swishing in the darkness, the wondrousness of this show lies in its spectacle and ambience.
Directed by Yngvild Aspeli, this is serious artistry, with 50 puppets (many life-size, others Lilliputian or gargantuan), seven actor-puppeteers and three musicians whose underscore modulates the mood as deftly as the intricate lighting (by Xavier Lescat and Vincent Loubière) and beguiling video (by David Lejard-Ruffet). Just one quibble: When the music’s volume rises, it can drown out the dialogue.
The show’s narrator, of course, is the sailor Ishmael — sometimes a puppet, more often a human played by Julian Spooner. Ahab’s crew, Ishmael says, “seemed to be picked and packed specifically by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniacal revenge.”
There is real-world resonance to the notion of unhinged leaders reckless with their followers’ lives, but this is not the production to explore that. On a set by Elisabeth Holager Lund, where the ribs of Ahab’s ship are made of whale bone, Aspeli’s “Moby Dick” is more interested in the specter of death that shadows the voyage. And it does not blink from violence: A scene involving a mother whale and her calf is first touching, then horrifying.
But this production is also about the relish of life — including the pleasure of friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg — and the abundance of beauty all around. The breathtaking puppetry embodies that loveliness.
If you missed Plexus Polaire’s arresting “Chambre Noire” at Under the Radar in 2019, don’t make the same mistake with “Moby Dick.” It’s running only through Saturday, then at the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival Jan. 18-21. Hurry. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES
‘Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner’
Through Jan. 22. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
In 2019, Forbes magazine named Kylie Jenner, a lip kit trendsetter, the youngest self-made billionaire. A year later, Forbes retracted that honor. Jenner, the magazine announced, was not in fact a billionaire. (And using a term like “self-made” to describe any Kardashian-adjacent adult had always been suspect.) This failure of journalism and accountancy did have one upside: It inspired Jasmine Lee-Jones’s vicious, playful, indignant work, a Royal Court Theater production being presented at the Public Theater.
Offended by Forbes’s celebratory tweet promoting its initial article, Cleo (Leanne Henlon), a young Black British woman who uses the handle @Incognegro, composes a couple of posts of her own, which imagine Jenner poisoned and shot. The tweets go viral. And despite the warnings of Kara (Tia Bannon), her mixed-raced friend, she keeps tweeting, pained by Jenner’s insouciant appropriation of the full lips typically associated with Black women. (Cleo has been bullied for the plump lips that Jenner, a white woman, bought and built her brand upon.) The tweets are unnervingly violent: “Can you take a selfie whilst being lit? But like actually lit on fire?,” Cleo types. (That would be method No. 5: immolation.) A riff on Adrienne Kennedy’s “Funnyhouse,” retooled for digital natives, “Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner” is a meditation on Black womanhood and identity, online and off and in the murkier spaces in between.
As directed by Milli Bhatia, Lee-Jones’s script shifts between the surrealism of the endless scroll — in which the two actresses voice memes, GIFs, emojis, tweets and retweets — and the relative naturalism of Cleo’s room. But even here — under a tangle of rope and lace, designed by Rajha Shakiry, that seems to literalize the World Wide Web — the argot of social media invades. Abbreviations like “idk” and “lmao” overrun ordinary speech. And virality seems to empower Cleo in adverse ways. Yet the play, ardently acted, is ultimately hopeful.
The internet is a sewer. Yes, of course. But in real life, two friends, however divided by colorism and sexuality, might find their way back to each other. That this is achieved by the imagined murder of another woman, however entitled, is one of the show’s stickier points.
On Wednesday, the second night of the run, technical difficulties plagued the show for nearly an hour. Then the difficulties stopped it cold. After a 15-minute pause, the play resumed, with the sound and light cues now appropriately synced to the script. Those miscues had been a distraction, particularly when it came to understanding the actresses, whose speech was warped by wonky microphone effects. Still, maybe there was a lesson somewhere in this technical mess. The technologies of social media can amplify individual voices. But it can distort them, too. ALEXIS SOLOSKI
‘A Thousand Ways (Part Three): An Assembly’
Through Jan. 22. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.
is a participatory, experimental piece about finding communion.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
The final installment of 600 Highwaymen’s pandemic triptych takes place in an antiseptically corporate room on the top floor of the New York Public Library’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan.
A participatory, experimental piece about finding communion in a disrupted but healing world, it requires little more than a stack of notecards, a rubber band to hold them and chairs for the audience members, who are also the actors. In theory, you could perform it anywhere.
But it is tough to cast a dramatic spell in an unadorned event space, and hard to focus the attention of a group when floor-to-ceiling windows look out on a wraparound terrace where visitors come and go against a busy cityscape.
If only this kind-spirited show by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone were being staged in a theater, a space designed to shut out distraction. How strange that the Under the Radar festival chose otherwise for the finish to a triptych structured like the industry’s shutdown and return: lonely isolation, cautious distance, disquieted reunion.
On a recent afternoon, “An Assembly” had none of the quasi-sacramental feel of the previous parts of “A Thousand Ways.” It felt instead like doing a team-building exercise with a dozen amiable colleagues I’d never met. We spoke lines, answered questions (“Who here is worried?” “Do you have any tattoos?”) and moved about as the notecards instructed.
A tall guy volunteered to take the first turn with the script. “This won’t be recorded,” he told us, reading from a card. “We won’t look back at it.”
And I thought: We won’t? I’ve looked back with such affection on the earlier parts: the ways they asked me to imagine the humanity of people I did not know, and let them do the same with me — fostering empathy and connection in a time of antipathy and aloneness.
The first part, “A Phone Call,” matched two strangers for a script-guided telephone conversation. I did that from my apartment in late 2020. The second, “An Encounter,” seated two strangers across a table, separated by glass and following a script. I did that at the Public Theater, in an empty auditorium, in mid-2021.
Those works arrived when theater lovers unappeased by streaming were ravenous for any semblance of the live stuff, and craving human interaction. By now, we’re used to being with strangers again — if not to passing their keys and phones from hand-to-hand, as Part Three asks us to.
Well over a year into the industry’s revival, “An Assembly” feels belated. It is calming, though. And if the people in your group give off a considerate and patient vibe, as those in mine did, it’s heartening, too. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES