Three Festival Shows Explore Toxic Society

‘Queens of Sheba’

Through Saturday as part of Under the Radar; Running time: 1 hour.

Theater makes much of the element of catharsis, but rarely is a show purgative all the way through, as the choreopoem “Queens of Sheba” is. A celebration of Black women, and a ticked-off commiseration for all the nonsense thrown their way, it names a host of psychic poisons and puts them on display.

At Lincoln Center, this British piece pays homage to Ntozake Shange’s classic choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” Written by Jessica L. Hagan and Ryan Calais Cameron (“For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy”), it is a series of loosely linked stories in verse.

A cast of four (Paisley Billings, Déja J Bowens, Jadesola Odunjo and the standout, Muki Zubis) tells of microaggressions from colleagues, exoticization by white dates and, true to Shange, derogation by Black men, which carries a particular pain.

There is also an othering question that the women get repeatedly: “Where are you from?” Their reply is a refrain in the show: “I say I am a mix. Of both racism and sexism — they lay equally on my skin.”

Directed by Jessica Kaliisa, “Queens of Sheba” was only briefly at last year’s Under the Radar, its run truncated by visa delays. So the festival brought it back, to the Clark Studio Theater.

It feels less crisply focused now, but its intent is clear. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” is its anthem, and what she sings about — what they sing about, too — is exactly what these women want. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES


Through Jan. 21 as part of Under the Radar; Running time: 3 hours 45 minutes, with two pauses and one intermission.

The two dancers in “Volcano,” Will Thompson and Luke Murphy (who is also the writer, director and choreographer), crumple to the floor and catapult across the room, lean on each other and climb the walls. Separated from the audience at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn by panes of glass, they inhabit what seems like a human terrarium in the Bushwick style, replete with shabby furniture and a raver’s paradise of strobe effects. (Stephen Dodd’s quicksilver lighting is like a third dancer.) They are, it turns out, human emissaries to potential extraterrestrial life, a conceit that trickles out in fits and starts over the course of four 45-minute “episodes” in this dance-theater hybrid, structured like a TV miniseries.

Reams of intricate composition and sound design by Rob Moloney, rich in propulsive beats and ominous drones, set the tone and momentum for this frenetic collage of interludes. Athletic, astonishingly expressive duets between Thompson and Murphy, as mission volunteers turned captives, are the production’s most electrifying sequences, even more so as their substance, and the context for interpreting them, somehow grows both clearer and more ambiguous with each episode (though the relationship between the pair remains unspoken, they certainly move like lovers).

Sporadic dialogue, like a wedding speech and a game show segment, is intended to represent an almanac of data, submitted by paying members of the public, that creates “the definition” of humanity. The scenes hardly accomplish as much, and Murphy is less interested in social argument than in formal experimentation and translating states of consciousness into breathtaking movement. The theme of captivity reigns; following two pauses for which the audience is asked to stay seated, intermission arrives only after three hours. Depending on your temperament, this saga’s narrative strategy of withholding detail for much of that time will lead to frustration, intrigue or, more likely, a duet between the two. NAVEEN KUMAR

Corey Montague-Sholay, left, and William Robinson in “Bacon.”Credit…Ali Wright


Through Jan. 28 as part of the International Fringe Encore Series; Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

With its overwrought drama and violence, Sophie Swithinbank’s one-act “Bacon” plays like the sort of 1990s television movies that, with an outsider’s sense of misguided benevolence, portray the lives of gay people as doomed from the start. It begins when Darren (William Robinson) arrives at the cafe where Mark (Corey Montague-Sholay) works, years after they’d embarked upon a torrid pseudo-romance in high school. Mark was the timid new kid then, which Darren, roughened up from life with an abusive father, exploited in their game of chicken.

Despite the seesaw that the set designer Natalie Johnson has attractively placed center stage, the boys’ relationship is not explored as a balancing act. A merry-go-round would be more apt (the script only calls for a playground) considering the story’s predictably cyclical structure: The two get close, Darren reacts with increasing brutality, Mark retreats before coming back. Perhaps inevitably, this ramps up to a violent encounter.

Operating at little critical remove from the fever pitch of the teenagers’ emotional lives — which Swithinbank packs with trauma at every turn — a lurid sense of the pornographic takes over. Matthew Iliffe directs the pair toward tableaus of ominously heightened physical awareness. This works when the two first lock eyes while stepping onto the teetering structure, less so the various times Mark is incidentally left at Darren’s feet — kneeling or, ahem, presenting. Despite the pungent combination of brevity and sordidness, the actors acquit themselves by finding candid portrayals of the condemned classmates. JUAN A. RAMÍREZ

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