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Theatre in Review: Under the Radar Festival, Part I (Public Theater Online)

Top: Javaad Alipoor, Kirsty Housely. Photo: Peter Dibdin. Bottom: Inua Ellems. Photo: Caleb Femi.

The Under the Radar Festival, which focuses on all thing avant-garde, is making its annual appearance; of course, this year everything is online. We'll be looking at a number of events on offer; if the pieces under consideration today are any indication, this year's edition is off to a roaring start.

Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran is my first experience of an Instagram play although, in truth, you don't need that particular form of social media to enjoy it. Javaad Alipoor's captivating meditation on history, colonialism, and the discontents of capitalism uses as its jumping-off point an Instagram feed filled with...rich kids running around shopping centers in Iran's capital. (He is quick to note that the Internet is filled with similar pages detailing the conspicuous consumption of the young, idle, and aimless.) In the first of the production's many provocative thoughts, it is noted that to scroll through a photo feed is to move backwards in time; by beginning with the most recent images and receding into the past, one is behaving like an archeologist. And why not? Alipoor and Kirsty Housley, his co-creator and co-star are, in their way, archeologists, beginning with a minor tragic event in Iran and scrolling back to evolve a theory of how the world got into its current mess.

Rich Kids, which is narrated in tandem by Alipoor and Housley, begins with the deaths of two young Iranis in a car crash. The victims are Mohammed Hossein and Parivash Akbarzadeh, his girlfriend on the side; wealthy and descended from ayatollahs, he is cheating on his fiancé with the lower-class Parivash, largely because breaking the rules provides a bigger kick than the booze and cocaine he consumes in such quantities. (Their real-life tragic accident launched a torrent of disgust on -- yes -- Instagram, citing the infamy of pampered children of the country's elites.) As the narrative slips into reverse gear, we learn about these young lovers and their lives of stultifying privilege, in which the pursuit of illicit thrills and consumer goods are the top priorities. Digging deeper into the past, we are made to ponder Hossein's father, who came of age under the Shah's corrupt regime and joined the revolt that led to a stifling theocracy yet resulted, a generation later, in a Tehran defined by a network of shopping malls, filled with Western designer goods worshipped for the status they convey.

Going further back, Alipoor and Housley probe how colonialism reshaped the Middle East (along with the rest of the planet), replacing indigenous cultures with a Western capitalistic ideal, which, in the modern era, has left a seemingly immortal residue of plastics and trash -- a narrative that Alipoor and Housley deftly link to the sad fates of Hossein and Parivash. If this sounds like a lecture, I'm not telling it right; the narrative method is anything but scolding. Instead, the creators make their case by weaving a web of fascinating facts: Our smartphones are built to outlast the length of time we know as human history. People post to the Internet 657 billion photos a year. One of the layers left by modern civilization for future archeologists to ponder is a thick mass of chicken bones; such may be our most lasting legacy. Woven into the discussion are the ideas from the likes of Susan Sontag, Walter Benjamin, and Paul Klee, among others.

All of these are used to buttress an alluring -- and deeply unsettling -- argument that cogently reframes key historical trends to explain how we have arrived at a moment of terrible inequality and overconsumption in an increasingly despoiled world. Looked at it one way, one problem is our failure to understand that all of human history is but a blip in a much longer story -- but many of the ecological scars we are leaving behind are likely to outlast us. Indeed, the narrators note, many people today cannot shake the sense that we have arrived an endpoint, and for good reason. For all of this, Rich Kids is not an exercise in doomscrolling; it is too canny and authoritative for that. Think of it as a wake-up call for a civilization with a value system in desperate need over an overhaul. Alipoor and Housley have a story to tell and you ignore it at your peril.

Borders & Crossings is a brief, elegant package of pieces by the UK-based poet Inua Ellems. As the title suggests, they illuminate a central issue of modern life. And they form an ugly picture of a Europe where the borders are up and immigrants are confined to near-feral existences in refugee camps. The poems are filled with flashes of penetrating insight and images that imprint themselves firmly on one's mind. These include a view of a woman with a "smile that will ghost her lips" and a contemplation of "the loneliness of English streets." An account of a voyage, on an overcrowded inflatable boat, from northern Africa to Lampedusa, the Italian island where refugees are processed, has an unsettling you-are-the-quality. But there is humor, too, for example in the story of an African woman, alone in an English hotel, frantically calling the front desk to report a mouse in her room -- and, her English failing her, finding herself forced to make reference to the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry.

Borders & Crossings has completed its run but keep your eye open for more Ellems' work, as we are certain to hear from him again. Rich Kids will be available for streamlining at select times January 14 - 17. Even so, it is worthy of a longer run whenever we go back to the theatres. Go to www.publictheater.org for more details. -- David Barbour

(11 January 2021)

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