At some point, the last night I went to Ice Factory Festival someone hit a big watermelon with a baseball bat in the middle of the stage, with the audience sitting around. I will not say more about this, because this particular production is still in development and not yet up for reviewing. I will just add I have always loved watermelon and, though I have never expected to “consume” it that way, I really enjoyed it on stage too.
This summer I first attended Ice Factory Festival at New Ohio Theatre. I knew about the place as a staple of experimental theatre in NYC, but somehow, I have never been able to attend this summer event. Good thing I finally did, as summer of 2023 will sadly enter downtown theatre history as the one when IFF’s last installment took place.
Named a “brand of cutting-edge, progressive theater, which makes audiences reconsider their familiar moorings” by New York Times in 2020, a year when most niche theatre events stopped taking place, IFF is a figment of playwright’s Robert Lyons’ imagination. It has produced new work and excitement for audiences for the past thirty years, becoming an intrinsic part of the artistic texture of New York downtown theatre scene. It gained accolades and win awards and it stops now only because Lyons believes, as he declared for American Theatre, that “theatre organizations have their own natural lifespans. This is a perfect moment for new ideas, new energy, and new models for the indie theatre scene.”
Ice Factory 2023 featured seven new works over seven weeks, culminating in artistic director Robert Lyons’s Ultra Left Violence as the final show. It included live in-person performances but also livestreams and on-demand offerings, continuing to employ this hybrid model tested after the pandemic period.
The first show I saw was the sci-fi rom-com, Zebra 2.0 by Saviana Stanescu, directed by Jeremy Goren and benefiting from scientific advice from dr. Niki Athanasiadou, a production of AnomalousCo and Wistaria Project. As the audience was not necessarily literate in regards to AI – I also speak for myself- we got hooked on the human level of the romance building up between one nice, bright, young immigrant cleaning lady Zina (Alina Mihailevschi) and the “spirit” of a computer generated AI (Tim Craig) whose mission is to count zebras for a scientific study. The undocumented woman – a zebra herself, in a poetic way – engages every day in the same routine cleaning the office, but meanwhile she talks to the AI in order to alleviate her loneliness, her anxiety as a new immigrant, pushed to the margins of the society because of her illegal status. The impossible happens: her humanity touches the computer and the “genie” goes out of his “bottle”, the two of them finally embracing in an uncanny scene made possible by the jump from theatre to film.
In a time when a lot is being said and written about AI, a confusing new presence in our lives, Saviana Stanescu’s new play Zebra 2.0 is one of the first to engage questions of artificial intelligence, humanity, belonging, simulation. “Humanize the machine” is probably one of the best answers theatre can give to this new reality coming its way.
The second production I saw in the festival, gerstl took the easy way out, was written by Lydia Blaisdell, directed by Ashley Olive Teague, and developed and produced with Notch Theatre Company. It is a feminist meta-theatre play set in Vienna in 1908 and featuring two well-known European artists – the painter Richard Gerstl and the composer Arnold Schönberg, the “father of atonality” – and the woman they both love. The Brechtian approach involves a contemporary choir of four people commenting on the intricate relationship from nowadays standpoint. It creates many funny witty moments and builds a common space for the audience to engage with the story, instead of focusing on its drama. In the role of the beloved Mathilde, actress Amy Staats jumps graciously from 1908 to 2023 and back, reflecting, along the queer choir, on her role in this fatal threesome and on gender roles in general. Her conclusion is that “Gerstl took the easy way out” of their affair, as she had to continue living with the genius composer after he found out about it.
The play certainly mirrors a new feminist affect in the aftermath of the #meetoo movement and benefits from the changes made in the young generations’ consciousness in regards to themes such as male-female balance of power, identity, artistic life versus everyday life. As one exhibition open in the same period at Brooklyn Museum would have put it: “it’s Pablo-Matic”.
The last edition of Ice Factory Festival concluded with founding artistic director Robert Lyons’s new play Ultra Left Violence, with text by Lyons and direction by amazing actor and director Daniel Irizarry, a wizard of physical theatre who converted clowning to political theatre. A work-in-progress described as an “anti-capitalist dialogue/lecture/manifesto run amok,” with live music, Ultra Left Violence will be further developed in residencies at Mercury Store and NACL in fall 2023. It is a theatre show echoing Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism. A Guide to our future in a very engaging, seductive and paradoxically funny way, with a team run on-stage by the director himself. It made the audience see a glimmer of a possible – maybe not so doomed, if we are smart – next phase for humanity.
It smelled like watermelon.
 Over the last 30 years, New Ohio has produced work that has gone on to garner Drama Desk nominations, Obie Awards, Audience First Awards in Edinburgh, Off-Broadway productions, and national and international tours. Striving to serve as a vital hub of the independent theatre community, New Ohio has been awarded two Obie Awards for Sustained Excellence. As of 2020, New Ohio had an approximate budget of $265,000. (American Theatre)