Take a chance on these experimental theatre shows in New York
Recently, a reader left the following comment on a New York Times theatre review: “I’ve been attending a lot of plays these days that don’t have actual stories or plots or beginning/middle/ends and everything seems so experimental and non-traditional.” That reader is right. Experimental plays are everywhere right now, and not just in tiny theatres in someone’s basement in Brooklyn. They’re on 42nd Street, they’re off Broadway, and they’re nontraditional, unrealistic, and weird as hell. That’s a compliment — these shows break all the rules of theatre and offer totally unique experiences you won’t get anywhere else.
These shows may not have traditional plots, but that doesn’t make them any less memorable. In fact, it may make them even more so (if only because there’s usually audience participation)! If you are a fan of, or are even curious about, experimental theatre, here are some experimental shows you can see now.
Aleshea Harris does not write traditional plays. Her breakthrough hit What to Send Up When It Goes Down, which asks the audience about their own experiences with anti-Blackness and police brutality, was a hit off Broadway, then toured Washington, D.C., then came back to NYC to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Playwrights Horizons.
Now, her newest work is at the respected New York Theatre Workshop (which was recently featured in the tick, tick…BOOM! film) through March 13. On Sugarland is about a Black military family and examines the notion of Black soldiers fighting for America abroad while facing racial violence at home. Harris describes her plays as “deranged frivolity,” so On Sugarland doesn’t tell a straightforward story. But if Harris’s other plays are any indication, On Sugarland will linger with you after you leave.
Blue Man Group
Astor Place Theatre has been home to a beloved experimental spectacle for more than 25 years: Blue Man Group. There’s no plot to this show — in fact, there’s not even any dialogue. There are three Blue Men, extraterrestrial beings who are learning to navigate the world, or at least the stage. They take “experimental theatre” very literally, as their live experimentation with everyday objects is the focus of the show.
Blue Man Group plays with art, music, science, and more within its 100 minutes. The performers play PVC pipes like instruments, conduct science experiments, and splatter paint all over the place (including the audience — you’re provided a poncho if you sit in the splash zone) in colorful displays of artistry. This is whimsical experimental theatre for all ages, from kids to kids at heart.
Charly Evon Simpson’s last Off-Broadway play, Behind the Sheet, was a fairly linear but daring show: She retold the story of the “father of modern gynecology” through the perspective of the enslaved Black women who involuntarily made his breakthroughs possible. She’s no stranger to boundary-breaking work, and her new play sandblasted, at Vineyard Theatre through March 6, seems to carry on that tradition.
The play concerns two friends, Angela and Odessa, who “are on a sandy search for something that might not be real but they are determined to make a way out of no way.” Along the way, they meet a celebrity wellness guru named Adah that guides them along. Like the characters’ journey, this show is meandering and non-linear, and it’s unclear where the journey leads. But that just makes the experience of seeing sandblasted that much more of an adventure.
Arden: But, Not Without You
Arden: But, Not Without You is at the Flea Theater, which has newly rebranded itself to focus on experimental work by “by Black, brown and queer artists.” This new show is billed as a ritual filled with song and dance. And if you’re religious, you know that ritual means audience participation, so this experience may only be for those truly game to having the spotlight on them.
One of the creators of the work is notable experimental theatre artist Diana Oh, whose last play, The Infinite Love Party, was basically an all-night sleepover with the audience. She writes that Arden is “Four Generations of Deeply Intimately Bound All-Kinds-of-Doing-Shit Artists sharing of themselves in a Tender-Ass Room full of Queer Femme Shamanic Energy who Genuinely and Gently Welcome You: Social Anxieties, Yummy Freakiness, and All.” In short: Come one, come all, through March 6.