The New York Times theater critics Ben Brantley and Jesse Green attended the opening weekend of the Public Theater’s annual Under the Radar festival. Here’s the second of their reports on the experimental work on display. (The first is here.) The festival runs through Jan. 13 at various venues; for more information visit

‘Minor Character’

Through Jan. 13.

It’s terribly interesting. No, it’s remarkably interesting. It’s incredibly interesting!

But also: You really are aggravating. This is agony. This is torture.

Such are the thesaurus-bursting permutations of “Minor Character,” a play that puts six translations of “Uncle Vanya” in a blender to see what emerges. Whatever it is, it isn’t a smoothie.

But it is often — as Sonya was telling Astrov above — remarkably interesting. It begins, after all, with one of the great tragicomedies and, at least in theory, amplifies both aspects of the genre. So even though the original is vastly cut in duration, it has at the same time been inflated almost to bursting with multiple interpretations of each character simultaneously.

At times, this plays out as if all of them are having nervous breakdowns, which of course they basically are. The tension typically derived from subtext is realized in this New Saloon production by having Vanya, Sonya, Yelena, Astrov and the rest of their dysfunctional boondocks household utter the same line serially in two or three different renderings from the Russian.

Those renderings cover quite a stylistic range, from Marian Fell’s fusty 1916 version (the first in English) to the deliberately anachronistic one by New Saloon’s Milo Cramer (using “911,” “OxyContin” and unprintable oaths for shock value) to the weird output of Google Translate, with several stops in between.

The result is a group portrait of minds divided, and yet at the same time multiplied, against themselves. When Sonya, the underappreciated chatelaine of the estate, pronounces herself “unattractive,” “not pretty” and also “plain,” she is making fine distinctions but also loathing herself harder as all three. And when all of the translations have beautiful Yelena answer the question “Are you happy?” with an unequivocal “No!” you somehow feel its finality more than ever.

In order to achieve the piling-on effect, another gimmick is engaged: Most of the play’s eight main characters are played by several actors in the eight-person cast. The roles are assigned regardless of gender, race and physical type or resemblance, so that Yelena is sometimes Madeline Wise, sometimes Ron Domingo and sometimes Rona Figueroa, or all three at once; at other times the same actors show up as almost anyone else. The benefit is that each brings a unique intelligence to the roles; the disservice is that, with only a stole or a pair of gloves to hint at whom they’re playing, you can easily lose track.

You don’t lose track of David Greenspan, though. Fittingly, he (and only he) plays Serebryakov, the gouty, egotistical professor for whom everyone else must sacrifice. (With all the doubling and tripling, it now seems as if 21 people are kowtowing.) Mr. Greenspan, his whiny dial turned up to max, unearths laughs I’ve never heard Serebryakov get in more traditional, exquisite productions like the recent revival at Hunter College. As “Uncle Vanya” is supposed to be a comedy, I found this revelatory.

I wish everything here were. But in keeping with the New Saloon aesthetic — I’d boil it down to twee with brains — more effort goes into feeding the stunt than nurturing the story. That’s a shame; as directed by Morgan Green, and as performed especially by Ms. Wise, certain scenes suggest that the company, which has been developing “Minor Character” since 2014, is quite capable of the genuine “Vanya” instead of just piggybacking on it.

But that, clearly, is not the goal. I might have figured as much from the Rubik’s cube sitting on the set. It is both a clue and a critique, suggesting that “Minor Character” is very satisfying at moments of alignment but (as Google Translate just told me) “is otherwise headache.” JESSE GREEN


Through Jan. 12

Bringing life to inanimate matter is a delicate and dangerous business, and its consequences have been known to be both appalling and delightful. At the Under the Radar Festival, the arts collective Manual Cinema is taking care of both ends of that spectrum in its “Frankenstein,” which uses a multitude of artistic odds and ends to reassemble Mary Shelley’s deathless novel of a man who plays God.

The appalling part is built into Shelley’s original story, of course, and it is rendered here with a faithfulness that Hollywood has seldom demonstrated. As for the delightful aspect, well, delightful is what the Chicago-based Manual Cinema does.

This troupe (whose earlier offerings include the more streamlined “Ada/Ava” and “Lula del Rey”) specializes in video-cum-puppet shows that evoke the gossamer charms of vintage silent movies in three hearty dimensions. It is a process achieved in plain view of the audience by an industrious and multifarious team of actors, musicians (the swirling Gothic score is by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman) and technicians.

Onscreen images are summoned into being by overhead projectors, shadow and stick puppets and simulcast live performances that muddle your senses of depth and perspective. What’s happening onstage often suggests revelers at a costume party playing with illustrated cardboard.

But look up at the screen, and you’ll see an exquisitely stylized, self-contained reality that seems to belong both to the early 19th century, when Shelley’s novel was written, and to the dark corridors of its author’s imagination. It’s the exploration of that tormented artistic sensibility that provides the show with its most truly haunting sequences.

It’s no accident that the same performer (Sarah Fornace) portrays both Shelley and the Promethean doctor-gone-wrong Victor Frankenstein. As devised by Drew Dir, Ms. Fornace and Julia VanArsdale Miller, this “Frankenstein” portrays the events that led Shelley to create her classic, including the fabled bet she made with Percy Shelley (her husband) and Lord Byron during one rainy summer in Geneva as to who could write the best ghost story.

More intriguingly, this production lingers over the earlier death of the Shelleys’ infant daughter and conjures the nightmares that such a loss must have inspired. The subsequent rendering of the novel’s plot about a codependent mad scientist and his autonomous creation never flags in its ingenious detail, but it can start to feel a bit too dutiful before this 97-minute production ends.

The creature itself is given perhaps too literal life. It’s scariest when it’s only a shadow. What truly chills the heart here are those earlier visions of the Shelleys’ phantom baby, a large-headed silhouette on screen, reaching out to its bereaved mother, an image stranded between consolation and unspeakable terror. BEN BRANTLEY

‘As Far as My Fingertips Take Me’

Through Jan. 13.

You’ve made a reservation for your private one-on-one session. Even so, when you enter the booth built into the mezzanine of the Public Theater’s busy lobby to see “As Far as My Fingertips Take Me,” you may think you’ve mistakenly wandered into a treatment room at a day spa, with pitchers and bowls on a table and pristine white lab coats on chrome hangers.

But few spas instruct you to place your bare left arm through a hole in a wall just big enough to fit it.

Once you comply, a recording begins to play over the earphones you’ve been asked to put on. What at first sounds like randomly soothing sounds of the sea soon becomes specific as the voice of the artist and performer Basel Zaraa tells the story of a repeatedly displaced Palestinian family — his own.

His three sisters, we learn, have embarked on a journey from Syria to Sweden via Turkey, Greece and Germany — and also via boat, bribe and luck. Despite this awful necessity, Mr. Zaraa’s family does not express disappointment in humanity; “fourth-generation refugees” do not expect much of humanity in the first place, he says. Still, a song sung and rapped in Arabic (with an English translation printed on the wall) suggests some of the costs involved for migrants: “They no longer feel anything.”

But you do. On the other side of that wall, Mr. Zaraa himself is drawing all the while on your forearm, though it sometimes feels like a phlebotomist prospecting for puncture sites. At other times he seems to be blotting his work, like a parent patting a baby dry after a bath.

When after about 10 minutes the tape ends and you withdraw your arm, you see that it is now covered with a long line of tiny silhouettes of adults and children, some hefting backpacks and some trailing wheelie bags. On your palm, a boat filled with refugees seems to hang by a thread leading to your smudged fingertips, a reminder of the fingerprint identity control that Europe now enforces on all migrants. You may wash off the ink immediately — that’s what the pitchers and bowls are for — or not.

After a moment Mr. Zaraa emerges from his side of the booth to say hello and answer any questions. Spoiler alert: I asked what kind of marker he used, and he showed me.

I should have asked something more pertinent but was bashful; though every element of the production, created by the Lebanon-born Tania El Khoury, is handled with expert gentleness, it is still immersive in the most extreme and literal ways, blurring the line between skin and story. And because I didn’t wash the drawings away, the intimacy and power of the story persisted over the next few days, though it changed as first the boat and then the migrants and finally even their luggage faded away. JESSE GREEN

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