Theater festivals fire up a cold New York

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Theater festivals fire up a cold New York

NEW YORK - Listening to Supreme Court justices question lawyers doesn’t sound like the stuff of great theater. But somehow it is - in the hands of one of the city’s most acclaimed companies.

Elevator Repair Service - the group that performed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby’’ in its entirety lasting over eight hours - returns this month with a new experiment: Re-enacting the 1991 oral arguments of a high court case about the legality of nude dancing in Indiana.

The show, “Arguendo,’’ will be one of dozens of independent and experimental theatrical pieces from across the globe being mounted in lower Manhattan in the coming weeks. January in New York is when you can see a play about the Indian deity Ganesh, a one-man “Hamlet’’ or take in a 24-hour-long concert or 12-hour show. In “Arguendo,’’ four members of Elevator Repair Service play eight of the court’s nine justices as well as the two opposing lawyers. The actors rigorously follow the transcript - they even cough and include pauses like “umm’’ heard on tapes of the argument - but they also move about the stage in choreographed rolling office chairs.

“I saw in this case a combination of a kind of entertaining back-and-forth and also something that really pressed some genuinely intellectually stimulating questions,’’ said director John Collins, who helped create Elevator Repair Service in 1991.

A dozen pieces, including the Elevator Repair Service show, are slated for the Under the Radar Festival produced by The Public Theater. Running from Wednesday to Jan. 20 at the company’s newly refurbished downtown home, the festival includes artists from seven countries including Iran, Belarus, the Netherlands, China, Japan and Australia. This year, all the shows will be at The Public instead of scattered across the city as they were when the building was being renovated.

“We have only 12 things this year. We didn’t go crazy - though some of them do last 11 hours,’’ Mark Russell, the director of the annual festival, said with a laugh. “The festival is going to be pretty special this year - it’s all under one roof.’’

Some of the highlights include “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich’’ by the Back to Back Theatre company from Australia, in which the elephant-headed god Ganesh travels through Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika, an ancient Hindu symbol. “It’s visually beautiful, and then there are so many layers in this show,’’ Russell said.

The acclaimed edgy troupe Belarus Free Theatre, whose members had to sneak out of the former Soviet republic to perform “Being Harold Pinter’’ in America last year, are back with a new piece. “The secret police are still hassling them, and we’re just crossing our fingers that they get out in one piece again,’’ Russell said.

There’s also “C’est du Chinois,’’ which is challenging in another way - it’s performed completely in Mandarin with no supertitles.

And “Hamlet, Prince of Grief,’’ featuring Iranian actor Afshin Hashemi using household objects and children’s toys in his retelling of Shakespeare’s classic in Farsi.

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