When I set out to check out the First Times Square International Theater Festival (which took place at the Roy Arias Theater January 16-22), I expected it to be an eclectic milieu of different languages, colors, costumes, and themes. Little did I know that when curators penned it as a festival that “challenges the status quo, exhibits artistic excellence, and manifests invention and innovation in all its aspects,” they weren’t kidding.
From my first viewing of “Sanctuary,” a powerful one-woman show about the universal experience of war across the centuries, I knew this was a different kind of theatre experience. Playwright/actor/ director/producer Susanne Sulby created a multimedia experience on her black box theatre stage that transported the audience straight to the jail cells of Kosovo one minute, refugee camps in Palestine the next, and suburban kitchens where an American woman (presumably herself) existentially questioned how she can reach the victims and survivors of war on the other side of her TV screen.
Tying the montages together was a combination of the wartime poetry of W.H. Auden—”Here war is simple like a monument”—and epithets from Rumi—”Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion.” The simplicity of the set (a scarf here, a video projected image of a sandy mountainscape there) drew attention to the timbre of her character’s conviction, pain, and strength. Most importantly, it brought into focus the idea that the experience of war, the grieving involved in both experiencing it or being a helpless spectator to it, are compellingly universal messages. This message was at the heart of all the performances at the festival.
Nothing reflected the universality of the human experience as much as “Match,” a play with an 11-person multi-national cast from Germany, France, Iran, Hungary and Kurdistan. The two-and-a-half hour performance was a montage of scenes exploring the relationship between human nature, fear, religion, politics, and multiculturalism. Each skit represented the issues metaphorically, turning human bodies into standing punching bags, incorporating fog machines, 3D imagery (with 3D glasses provided!) and characters carrying loud megaphones. They broke the fourth wall, shouting about democracy, progress, corruption—a wild, vivid scene of garbage flying across the stage, strobe lights flashing, abused protestors and their withered signs, cascading to the stage floor.
Despite all the experimental excitement, there were also more traditional options for those who just wanted a quick jaunt to different global sights. H.R. Britton’s monologue, “Melting in Madras,” was a spleen-splittingly hilarious storytelling journey about his wide-eyed, culturally sensitive post-college trip to India to explore yoga and music—putting him a highly spirited trip to a hospital room bed.
“Legacy of the Tiger Mother” explored the culturally sensitive relationship between a Chinese mother and her Chinese-American daughter. The musical performance offered breathtaking vocals, comical overtures and spirited dancing.
Finally, I viewed “1,934 Days,” a montage of monologues about personal experiences and life stories that involved longing for family, community, memories lost, and promises kept. Actors and their stories spanned international identities and contexts: Cuban sisters estranged in France, Japanese immigrants longing for better times, and Israeli prisoners lamenting their fate. A monologue about a lipstick lesbian longing for her more accepting high school queer scene dismantled many of the taboos associated with femme stigmatization in college queer communities.
Each performance had an undeniable range of talent, transporting the audience to new ways of thinking about emotions, politics and ideologies. The festival revealed the power of minimalist and experimental theatre to absorb us into another’s world, only to find that it is not too different from our own.