Swastikas, Elephant God, Minsk Sex at Radar Fest: Review

In “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich,” the elephant-headed Hindu god goes to Germany to reclaim the swastika design that the Fuhrer has turned into an icon of slaughter.

This extraordinary show was part of the 13th Under the Radar Festival, headquartered at New York’s Public Theater and run by the remarkable Mark Russell, a brilliant curator. This year’s festival is devoted to outsider individuals and ensembles.

The story unfolds haltingly as members of Back to Back Theatre stop to examine their own motives. Do they have the right to impersonate people dying and murdered? Are they minimizing the Holocaust? Are they as actors up to this task?

Those questions are compelling in part because this troupe, from Geelong, Australia, consists of men with various mental and physical challenges. And Ganesh is the god of overcoming obstacles.

We take time attuning to the sometimes staccato delivery of one or the uneasy gait of another actor. Their expressions of criticism and self-doubt often turn from funny to shockingly cruel. Just as in “normal” life.

Also in the festival was “Arguendo” a work in progress presented by Elevator Repair Service, which brought us the unforgettable “Gatz.”

The title is a legal term meaning, “let’s just say, for the sake of argument...” The show ponders the question confronting the Rehnquist Supreme Court in 1991, in Barnes v. Glen Theatre: Did Indiana’s public decency law violate the First Amendment rights of nude go-go dancers?

Salacious Strauss

Four actors under the direction of John Collins take on the roles of various Justices, the lawyers and a dancer.

The back-and-forth can be provocative and hilarious: When the Indiana prosecutor says the law reasonably prevents a man from walking into a bookstore naked, Justice Scalia counters that “he can evidently sing in an opera without his clothes on” and wonders how one “draws the line between ‘Salome’ and the Kitty Kat Lounge.”

The performances were underscored -- and sometimes undermined -- by some dizzy-making visuals, primarily of text from the arguments.

If there’s any question about the underlying importance of such a debate over free expression, “Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker” answers it. (The late novelist Acker wrote a treatise on sexuality and society.)

This astonishing production by the Belarus Free Theatre -- remembered for “Being Harold Pinter” -- offers scenes from a gray city made grimmer by repression. Merely looking at a stranger can get you beaten up, arrested or both. And sexuality is just another art form to be violently repressed.

The company of nine actors calls the show a love letter to Minsk. But it’s more like a raucous eulogy, full of remorse and the sense of loss -- and anger.

Twelve shows are spread across the 11-day festival. Most run under 90 minutes (an exception is “Life and Times: Episodes 1-4,” a 10-hour marathon from Nature Theater of Oklahoma). All tickets are $20; there’s no better way to spend that little in the gray days of January.

Under the Radar runs through Jan. 20 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Information: +1-212-967-7555; 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.)

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