(Tom Sellar's article appeared in The Village Voice, 1/5.)

The City's Best (And Not So Best) Progressive Theater

En garde, avant-garde!

Ten years into the 21st century, it seems a fitting time to look at the state of New York City's theatrical avant-garde. How has it evolved over the past decade? Who's doing the most inventive work, and who's coming up short? What exactly constitutes a vanguard these days, and where is it heading?

Some of the answers can be found by looking at the young ensembles who now lead the city's progressive theater scene. Although downtown playwrights—like Young Jean Lee, Thomas Bradshaw, and Richard Maxwell—stand among the era's theatrical pioneers, the arena for experimentation is increasingly occupied by self-producing groups in long-term collaborations. The decade has seen a new crop—Temporary Distortion, Witness Relocation, Radiohole, among others—named more like bands than traditional stage ensembles. Collectively, they have reinfused downtown theater with interdisciplinary energies and fresh entrepreneurship. The best ones could rouse the American avant-garde, which has largely settled into a comfortable set of postmodern conventions.

Many of New York's edgier ensembles have been drawing on non-dramatic source material (i.e., no plays) and creating work that mirrors other media forms—two impulses historically embraced by modernist avant-gardes, of course, but sometimes yielding original results today. Big Art Group, for instance, makes a touchstone out of synthesizing media elements. SOS, their 2009 show at the Kitchen, offered a spiraling series of hallucinations of consumer catastrophe—simultaneously humorous and apocalyptic. Scenes alternated between terrified animals fending for themselves in the Darwinian wilderness, and grotesque chats between urban creatures of consumption. The group used live projections, computer graphics, and a dense soundtrack to create an overstimulated (but deliberately oppressive) mediascape, which was somehow charmingly homemade.

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