At UTR and Exponential, Four Soul-Enriching Experiments in Theater

At UTR and Exponential, Four Soul-Enriching Experiments in Theater

Critic’s Pick

Through Jan. 18 as part of Under the Radar; utrfest.org. Running time: 50 minutes.

For about two-thirds of Peter Mills Weiss and Julia Mounsey’s new show, “Open Mic Night,” Weiss alternated between reminiscing about a now-closed space and asking audience members a series of rapid-fire questions, like “Vipers or moles?” “Vacation or voting?” Mounsey was sitting behind a laptop, which she used to drop sound cues, and the blinding house lights remained on as Weiss engaged in crowd work.

Suddenly, Weiss said: “I’m tired of playing this character. Hi, I’m the real Peter now.” But then the house lights went down and a spotlight went up, and he was holding a mic, looking like a stand-up comedian in full performance mode. What was real? What was pretend? The duo seemed to be slyly reminding us that maybe a stage is not a place where we should expect authenticity. Plus, what does that even mean?

Since their 2019 show “[50/50] old school animation,” Mounsey and Weiss have emerged as perhaps the most bracing theatermakers in New York City, a reputation confirmed in 2021 with “While You Were Partying” at Soho Rep. “Open Mic Night,” which runs through Jan. 18 and is being presented by Mabou Mines and Performance Space New York as part of this year’s Under the Radar festival, confirms that they are not so much about cringe as they are about questioning the relationship between artist and audience. (Nathan Fielder fans should take note.) During the round of questions, Weiss asked a woman, “Do you trust me?” After she said yes, he flatly said: “Interesting.” ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

Critic’s Pick

Through Jan. 13 as part of Under the Radar; utrfest.org. Running time: 1 hour.

Inua Ellams prefaced “Search Party,” his winkingly titled, warmly revivifying Under the Radar show in the Clark Studio Theater at Lincoln Center, with a couple of friendly disclaimers.

First, it isn’t a theater piece. Most of it would depend on the audience giving him words to type into a tablet computer full of his poetry, essays and other texts, and him reading what came up in the search results.

Second, its success would hinge on us.

“If it is brilliant it is because of your word choices, and if it is terrible it is your fault,” he said, teasingly, on Saturday night. “Collective responsibility.”

The audience I saw “Search Party” with acquitted itself glowingly.

Ellams, a Nigerian-born British playwright and poet, is best known to New York audiences for his plays “Barber Shop Chronicles” and “The Half-God of Rainfall,” but “Search Party” is more like an unpretentious literary salon that’s also a politically minded hang.

Seated on a couch, gesturing gracefully with the hand that wasn’t holding the tablet, he read us a long, soul-baring essay addressed to an ex; a monologue spoken by a food delivery person whom Ellams hopes to work into a play (yes, please); a meditation on why he writes. Themes that drive his work recurred: immigration, belonging, xenophobia; community, language, culture.

It’s a luxury to hear Ellams in this 120-seat space — and an affordable one, as part of Lincoln Center’s choose-what-you-pay program. You can hand over just $5 if you like, and pick any seat.

I highly recommend. Go hang with him. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

“Being Up in Here,” through Jan. 13 at the Brick, Brooklyn. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. “Two Sisters,” through Jan. 13 at the Loading Dock, Brooklyn. Running time: 1 hour. theexponentialfestival.org

Playing best friends Aaliyah and Eli, Alexis L. Dobynes and Aja Downing are in motion for most of “Being Up in Here and All the Other Businesses That Don’t Concern You or When You See a Buncha Black People Running, What Do You Do?” Sometimes they jog, sometimes they walk briskly. They get around and even make it to space, though how and why we end up there is unclear — the show, which is written and directed by Marissa Joyce Stamps, uses four treadmills to keep the actresses moving, but the show’s preferred mode is elliptical.

“Being Up in Here,” at the Brick until Jan. 13, is part of the Exponential Festival, which focuses on emerging artists with an experimental bent and makes the concurrent Under the Radar look downright Broadway-ready. The production, like many at this festival, prefers the cryptic to the obvious, and accepting those terms is crucial to the experience.

A ​​recipient of the 2023 Princess Grace Playwriting Award/New Dramatists Residency, Stamps seems to have an interest in physicality and athleticism — her previous show at Exponential, “Blue Fire Burns the Hottest,” featured a center-stage ring and two men in boxing trunks. But here it’s the language that’s muscular in a series of scenes that Dobynes and Downing dig into with shared relish and distinct styles — the first deceptively soft-spoken, the second deceptively bold.

Also part of Exponential and produced in partnership with the esteemed incubator New Georges, Emma Horwitz and Bailey Williams’s joyously, shambolically silly “Two Sisters Find a Box of Lesbian Erotica in the Woods” is similarly all over the map, with no helpful GPS for the audience. Our hosts, Bailey and Emma (portrayed by the playwrights), bounce from goofy science-fiction references to a conventional but still funny satire of performance art, and from erotica parodies to knowing jokes about lesbian culture. The latter include a set (conceived with input from the designer Normandy Sherwood) of cardboard boxes bearing labels like “Butch heiresses” and “Dykes (concept/lumber),” and readings of testimonies from star lesbians that, at the performance I attended, included Bette Porter, Lydia Tár and Timothée Chalamet.

Directed by Tara Elliott, the show, which is at Loading Dock in Brooklyn through Jan. 13, may feel like an inconsequential lark, but we are in no position to sniff at a fun hour of theater. “Two Sisters” also confirms that Horwitz (whose dark comedy “Mary Gets Hers” had a nice buzz last fall) and Williams (“Events”) are singing an offbeat tune, and we need to hear more of it. VINCENTELLI

#UTR #Exponential #SoulEnriching #Experiments #Theater


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