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‘Goodbar’ Screams, Sontag Thinks at Radar Fest: Jeremy Gerard

"Sontag: Reborn," running Jan. 4-15 at The Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar Festival. Photo Credit: James Gibbs/Under the Radar Festival via Bloomberg

Jan. 11 (Bloomberg) -- The free earplugs offered as you enter the Public Theater’s Martinson Hall for “Goodbar” is a challenge meant to separate the fearless from the timid.

That’s as good a metaphor as any for the Public’s invaluable Under the Radar festival, now in its 12th two-week season of presenting avant-garde works from around the world.

“Goodbar” is a screechy riff on Judith Rossner’s 1975 novel, “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” based on the true tale of a shy teacher who frequents singles bars at night and winds up murdered.

The story’s sanctimony is pumped up even more than the volume in this performance -- a “concept album” (remember those?) created and staged by a band called Bambi and a collaborative called Waterwell, all tricked out in multimedia garb.

The story is narrated by the teacher, Theresa (played by Bambi’s lead singer, Hanna Cheek), and an all-purpose predatory male (Kevin Townley, who looks like Boy George with too much eye shadow, if that’s possible).

Against a backdrop of Theresa’s increasingly sordid encounters, they duetize songs as crude as they are loud.

‘Sontag: Reborn’

Susan Sontag talks to herself in the fascinating “Sontag: Reborn,” another multimedia foray, though of a far more intimate and revelatory nature.

In a mere 80 minutes, the young Sontag is seen writing at her desk, in the process of inventing herself as an iconoclastic cultural critic. Her older self watches and occasionally comments, courtesy of a scrim showing Sontag’s languorous image, aswirl in cigarette smoke, face framed by the signature skunk’s-tail hair.

On the stage, Moe Angelos, who adapted Sontag’s early journals, plays the critic as her esthetics and her sexuality -- equally complex; equally expansive -- come into focus.

She wants to hold forth on everything intellectually and experience everything physically -- even the dulling of her marriage to Philip Rieff.

“It is useless for me to record only the satisfying parts of my existence,” the young Sontag writes. “There are too few of them anyway,” the knowing, elder Sontag retorts. The elegantly simple staging is by Marianne Weems; the ectoplasmic video is by Austin Switser.

‘Lick But Don’t Swallow’

“Lick But Don’t Swallow!” is a coarsely amusing feminist satire that might easily have been time-warped in from the 1970s. It’s performed in Turkish, with supertitles, though I could have used the earplugs at this one.

On the stage at La MaMa, where several of the festival shows are playing, a fleshy woman in red bustier and black stockings languishes on a daybed, facing away from the audience. She seems to be facing some sort of heavenly tribunal.

She must return to Earth and change someone -- anyone -- from bad person to good within 24 hours to get her wings and return for eternal happiness. Naturally, she’s sent down in the person of a porn star on a film set.

As she is variously mounted and otherwise engaged (there is no nudity in the show), she pleads the case of starving African children, abused women and other social tragedies, much to the consternation of both the director and her co-star.

A troupe called Biriken created “Lick!” in collaboration with Ayca Damgaci, the wholly convincing actress who stars. There are subtitles but you don’t really need them. Agitprop rarely requires translation.

Under the Radar runs through Jan. 15. Information: +1-212 539-8500; http://www.undertheradarfestival.com.

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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