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Radar L.A. Festival 2013: Experimental Theater From the Seductive to the Disgusting

Shun-Kin by Complicite and Setagaya Public Theatre
Shun-Kin by Complicite and Setagaya Public Theatre
Sarah Ainslie.

A sampling of entries seen at this year's 18-entry Radar L.A.Festival leaves two impressions: Angst about fathers and stages filled with puppets.

The downtown, Getty Villa and UCLA entries closed on Sunday. Three solo shows at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (Luis Alfaro, Roger Guenveur Smith and Trieu Tran, covered in this week's coming feature), play through next week. The dad stuff is mostly psychologically based with welcome excursions into the political.

In the dad category would be Luis Alfaro's evocative and nostalgic solo show St. Jude, directed by Robert Egan. This sweetly performed love letter to Alfaro's dad at the Kirk Douglas juxtaposes Alfaro's growing up in the Central Valley with his father's decline in Fullerton.

Trieu Tran's Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam chronicles his family's exodus from Vietnam after his father was tortured by the Viet Cong. Well co-written with the director, Robert Egan, it surveys Tran's entry into Canada and urban schools (and gangs) in Boston -- the larger point being Tran's estranged relationship with his emotionally distant father (the old man was a torture victim). Tran's performance style comes punctuated with literal gestures, reinforcing the text rather than embellishing it with texture, but, like another solo performance about estrangement, Mexican Mariana Villegas' Breaking the Waves at LATC, it's more therapeutic than theatrical.

In Waves, 26-year-old Villegas -- a large woman in many ways -- serves up the story of how her parents met, how she came to be, of her impetuous romance and pregnancy, of her fairly cheerful upbringing by her mom. It finally lands upon the agony of her dad's high-stepping it across the sea, and her yearnings for him.

These three plays meld the art of story-telling with confession. Despite epic drama within them -- such as the Vietnam war and the Mexico City earthquake -- their theatrical innovation is modest for a festival dedicated to theatrical innovation.

Mariana Villegas in Breaking the Waves
Mariana Villegas in Breaking the Waves
Francisco Barreiro.

To the good news: puppets, puppets and more puppets. Basil Twist and Yumiko Tanaka's Dogugaeshi at REDCAT -- the title refers to the ancient art of Japanese puppetry -- blurs the line between theater and moving pictures. By "moving pictures," this is not quite the same as movies. It's a series of gorgeous visual tableaux in which stick puppets (like a cross between an anime lion and a dragon) dance across the screen that comprises the stage.

The performance starts winkingly enough, with a front screen opening one to the left, one to the right, like in a movie-palace, revealing another screen, which opens to reveal another, and another. Among the performance's mysteries is challenging our assumption of what is facade and what is "real," leading to the conclusion that almost every layer of our comprehension is facade. The rest is an entrancing kaleidoscope of visual images, accompanied by Tanaka's beautiful sound design.

Of what I saw, the highlight was Complicite (United Kingdom) and Setagaya Public Theatre (Japan)'s Shun Kin at UCLA -- also part of UCLA's Center for Art of Performance. It featured a moving (in two senses of that adjective) mannequin, cast as the character of a Japanese girl, blinded in childhood, who grows into the sadistic mistress of her loving, masochistic apprentice. The text comes from a story by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki.

Directed with a riveting elegance and formality by Simon McBurney, with smidgens of wry humor, the performance is from a genre of Japanese tales of romantic/erotic insularity and abandon, depicted in Nagisa Ôshima's 1976 movie In the Realm of the Senses. Particularly striking is one puppeteer taking over the role of the blind child/woman with such technique it was hard to discern at first that she was human. Again, it brings up the question of what is facade and what is real, beautifully depicted.

Jerk
Jerk
Alain Monot

Jerk was as strategically disgusting as Shun Kin and Dogugaeshi were seductive. Director Gisele Vienne and performer-ventriloquist Jonathan Capdevielle's adaptation, using three hand-puppets, tells of the brutal torture rape and killing of more than 25 teenage boys in the early 1970s (based on Dennis Cooper's novel). Capdevielle is brilliant, providing chilling sound effects from the back of his throat that bring torture and death home. But if the purpose is to make us look into ourselves, it didn't work with me. I was just repelled. I would have liked to take it further into soul-searching, but, ironically, the drooling, multi-voiced Capdevielle was just too shudderingly true. I doubt I'll be forgetting this piece any time soon.

Colombian director Manuel Orjuela's You Should Have Stayed Home, Morons took the audience to three downtown locations, where, in each, a different performer served up a mentally unhinged screed about childhood abuse, the travails of conformity, and a meditation on beatings.

The beating episode, performed by Sal Lopez on Fifth Street, while the audience stared at him from a third floor loft window, was the most witty. Somebody from another building told him, understandably, to "shut the fuck up." "I love you too!" Lopez shot back. The attempt to bring theater to the streets, modestly intriguing, still couldn't blur the line between life and performance, which was its intent.

Sal Lopez in You Should Have Stayed Home, Morons
Sal Lopez in You Should Have Stayed Home, Morons
Steven Gunther

Some beautiful, austere choreography from Samoa and New Zealand was presented at a downtown movie palace in Lemi Ponifasio's Stones in Her Mouth, continuing the art of illusion and straddling the ever so fine line between the real and surreal.

A bright string of light across the bottom of the dark stage made it impossible to discern where the the stage ended and the human forms of 10 black-clad dancers began. They chanted in unison, they performed percussively with flaggelators striking their own bodies and hands, they dissappeared into darkness, one reappeared naked and bloodied.

This was performed regally against a soundscape of a hospital ventillators, and what resembled the sounds of a computer from the 1980s booting up, and, in another scene, the sounds of helicopters looming overhead. In one scene, the naked dancer gyrated to the sound of machine-gun fire. The piece was like an dance-homage to The Trojan Women, a lament about the end of things, lingering somewhere between a dream and a nightmare.

Stones
Stones
Mau

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