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Experimental Theatre With Heart

Date: Dec 30, 2013


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Phrases like "experimental theatre" or "boundary-pushing multimedia presentation" might sound forbidding, as though they're meant for art that pushes us away instead of inviting us in. But the COIL Festival, a collection of edgy new works that's being presented by PS 122 from January 3-February 1, wants to underscore the humanity in the avant garde. As Vallejo Gantner, PS 122's artistic director, says, it's designed to support artists who "break down genres and tell compelling and very personal stories in new ways."

Now in its ninth season, this year's festival features nine productions---presented in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan---that exemplify both who we are and where we are. For example, writer-director Tina Satter's House of Dance portrays four dancers searching their souls as they prepare for an intense small-town competition. Okwui Okpokwasili, meanwhile, uses song and movement to depict the sexual awakening of two eleven-year-old girls in Bronx Gothic. "Because the character I'm working on is a fragmented and fragmenting person, it feels quite natural that in one moment she reveals something in spoken language that throws her body into a frenzy and then to attempt to come out of it, she sings herself a comforting song," she says.

Feidlim Cannon, company director of the Irish troupe Brokentalkers, also mines the personal in Have I No Mouth, which finds him acting opposite his real-life mother, Ann (making her acting debut), in a portrait of events following his father's death. "What was really interesting were the differing memories my mother and I had of the same events," he says. "We wanted to look at how our past can be fictionalized and re-worked through memory. It was important for me to go to the dark places I only go alone in my head."

On the lighter side of the spectrum, Mac Wellman's experimental Muazzez adapts one of the writer-director's own science fiction works and features an abandoned cigar factory as a narrator. Reid Farrington's TYSON vs. ALI also envisions a fictitious encounter, albeit one with more recognizable subjects. Farrington's production will feature stunt boxers Roger Casey and Jason Swain acting out actual fights while also executing a dance synchronized with projected video behind them.

As Farrington explains, this is a means of exploring the psychology behind the sweet science. "TYSON vs. ALI builds on a technique of blending live performance and projected images that I have been using since 2007," he explains. "Both a boxer's and a dancer's training is based around the idea that they need to be able to stop 'thinking' and rely on their physical awareness and muscle memory to get a job done. Boxing and dance are both about a person's rhythm, balance, strength, coordination, speed, and control."

In An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk, writer Jon Diebes and director Phil Soltanoff have created a digital but responsive version of Captain Kirk, William Shatner's Star Trek character, by assembling nearly 6000 audio and video samples. "The technology is not a threat, but a pathway to new possibilities," says Soltanoff, who describes his Shatner as a "post-human figure." He adds, "This new person doesn't actually exist; only the media samples do. But really interesting philosophical questions come from the theatrical experience of the piece: How is meaning constructed? How is identity constructed? How does language itself limit meaning?"

No one in COIL can answer those questions, of course, but it's the asking that gives the festival its spark.

See a complete list of COIL performances and venues.


Doug Strassler is a critic, reporter, and the editor of the NY IT Awards newsletter

Photo by John Hurley