At Under the Radar, family histories bubble up with no easy answers

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At Under the Radar, family histories bubble up with no easy answers
Roger Guenveur Smith in his one-man work “Otto Frank,” in which he plays the father of Anne Frank, at the Public Theater in New York, Jan. 12, 2023. The Public Theater’s experimental theater festival is back in person for the first time since 2020. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

NEW YORK, NY.- The Public Theater’s experimental theater festival, Under the Radar, is back in person for the first time since 2020. Here, New York Times critics review a second selection of the works on display, including those by Roger Guenveur Smith, Kaneza Schaal and Annie Saunders. Think of them as bite-size dramas.

‘Otto Frank’

Through Sunday Running time: 1 hour.

It’s unnerving how seldom Otto Frank blinks in Roger Guenveur Smith’s hourlong “Otto Frank.” But then why would he? Having for 35 years tended the posthumous flame of his murdered daughter Anne — while doing the same for her sister and mother and six million others — Otto might well have had to force himself to keep seeing.

You may need to blink, though. Not because the story Smith tells in his crushing, exhausting monologue, part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, can come as a surprise. Anne’s diary, prepared for publication by Otto in 1947, has been outsold among nonfiction books, Smith tells us, only by the Bible. It was adapted for Broadway in 1955, and Hollywood in 1959.

Yet we have rarely been asked, as we are here, to view the horror through a double tragic lens. Watching Smith inhabit Otto and endure his unrelenting memories feels like watching someone die in pain — and then keep dying over and over.

That must be what Smith is going for. As has often been the case in his earlier monologues — about Huey Newton, Bob Marley and Rodney King, among others — he does not settle for dry narration. In lightly rhymed, intensely poetic cadences that sometimes spill into a kind of keening song (the live sound design is by Marc Anthony Thompson), he instead reaches out from history to make broader connections, beyond territory and time.

Beyond race and religion, too. References to “the congregations in Charleston and Pittsburgh and Christchurch and Poway” mix synagogue shootings with murders in a mosque and a Black church. Otto also mourns enslaved Africans who were “marched to their death” during “the great middle passage” and name-checks massacres in Bosnia, Rwanda, Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. (“Otto Frank” will be performed at the Oklahoma City Repertory Theater Jan. 27-28.) He even suggests that Anne “would be proud” of “the young American woman in a hard hat” — Bree Newsome Bass — who in 2020 climbed a flagpole in Columbia, South Carolina, to remove its confederate flag.

Comparing atrocities (and braveries) is a tricky business, and the entire project of dramatizing the Holocaust is fraught with problems of scale. As was also the case with Tom Stoppard’s Broadway hit “Leopoldstadt,” I sometimes felt in “Otto Frank” that the names of the camps and the litanies of loss were being dragooned into dramatic service illegitimately. That doesn’t invalidate the sincerity and even the occasional beauty of the effort. But what Smith apparently felt forced to see sometimes made me want to look away.



Through Sunday. Running time: 65 minutes.

As audience members take their seats for Kaneza Schaal’s “KLII,” they are offered bars of soap with which they can wash their hands in water buckets. Schaal is already onstage, sitting on a luxurious thronelike chair in the semidarkness. A long beard spreads to the top of her red-and-gold uniform jacket. The figure she is evoking is King Leopold II, the Belgian monarch who, in the late 19th century, owned the Congo Free State (what is now, for the most part, the Democratic Republic of Congo).

This dimly lit, moody prelude is quietly unsettling — quite a theatrical feat since nothing much is happening.

Eventually, Schaal climbs a steep metal ladder to part-declaim, part-lip-sync a speech. This part of “KLII,” before the show makes a sharp turn in terms of artistic approach and content, is cobbled together from sources like Mark Twain’s satirical “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” from 1905, and a 1960 address from the independence leader Patrice Lumumba, but Camila Ortiz and Ian Askew’s sound is so blurred by industrial-strength reverb and booming echo that little besides stray words and sentences emerge from the sonic murk. There is something Leni Riefenstahl-esque about the vision of a despot authoritatively spouting unintelligible — either by design or accident — verbiage, but a little goes a long way, and the scene overstays its welcome.

After climbing down from her perch, Schaal, who conceived “KLII” and directed it with the designer Christopher Myers, takes off her makeup — literally wiping Leopold off her face — and tells us, in a conversational voice now free of distortion, about her young daughter’s passion for “Fiddler on the Roof.” Other topics in that monologue (which is credited to Myers) include a brief on what happened when soap manufacturers transitioned from animal fat to palm oil and a peek at her family history with the tale of her Grandpa Murara, who fled Rwanda and opened a guesthouse in Burundi.

In a note, Schaal describes “KLII” as “an exorcism, in theater.” This implies a certain amount of release, but even in its intimate, more directly autobiographical second half, the show does not deliver, or even aim for, easy catharsis.

Avoiding the obvious is to be commended, but Schaal does not connect the dots into a convincing whole. “KLII” is most effective on a purely aesthetic, visceral level, down to small details that linger, like the cups of hibiscus tea that are handed to theatergoers on their way out. Printed inside the cups is a hand, which feels like a symbol of extended hospitality, until you remember that Leopold would casually order Congolese folks’ limbs to be hacked off.


‘Our Country’

Through Sunday. Running time: 65 minutes.

In the canon of dramatic siblinghood, Antigone may be the most heroic sister. A mythic rebel drawn by Sophocles, she risks her life to bury her disgraced dead brother, an enemy of the state.

The experimental writer-performer Annie Saunders does not dispute the bravery of that act of devotion. But in “Our Country,” a somewhat ungainly examination of Saunders’ bond with and duty toward her own legally beleaguered younger brother, she suggests there might be another way of looking at Antigone’s self-sacrifice.

“I just wonder, has it ever occurred to anybody that maybe that was not her job?” she says. “Like maybe she could have just lived her life?”

Saunders, who created “Our Country” with its director, Becca Wolff, knows it isn’t that simple — that love, a shared past and the pull of familial obligation can conspire otherwise. When the age gap between siblings is wide enough, as it is between her and her brother, Rafe (Jesse Saler), the older one has memories stretching back to the younger’s arrival.

“When you were a baby I took you for show and tell, when you were born,” Saunders says. “Did you know that?”

“‘This is my brother. Everybody line up and pet him,’” Rafe says, teasing her gently, disarmingly.

“Our Country,” at the Public Theater, takes much of its dialogue from recordings that Saunders made, with her brother’s consent, of conversations between them. She, a Los Angeles artist, tries to understand him, an anti-establishment, pro-gun, Northern California marijuana farmer with a checkered legal past cleaned up by clever attorneys. Now he’s “in hotter water than usual,” she says: facing charges that might put him in prison. She’s been asked, by their lawyer mother, to write a letter in support of him.

“Do you concede that you are having a particularly Caucasian experience of our criminal justice system?” Saunders asks, and Rafe pushes her off her high horse immediately.

“Would you like to talk about privilege now in your play?” he says.

On Nina Caussa’s rustic set, the siblings assemble a giant play fort — a patchwork tent whose awning stretches over the first rows of the audience. Sister and brother talk and tussle, their physicality almost balletic as Saunders, who is smaller than Saler, repeatedly carries him, though sometimes it’s the other way around. (Movement direction is by Jess Williams.)

As the title suggests, “Our Country” means to be about more than one pair of siblings. Saunders and Wolff are also poking at Wild West myths about freedom, and at the widening chasm where some semblance of national identity used to be.

Inside the fort, recollections of family history vary. Maybe, it seems, that longed-for collective past was partly imagined even at the time.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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