Photo Credit: Carlos Furman.

Photo Credit: Carlos Furman.

In the mood for a challenging piece of theater? Then head downtown before January 12th to catch Cineastas, an early entry in this year’s Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater. The festival, now in its eleventh year, brings in experimental productions from around the world. The touring troupe for this show is Argentinian: five actors portraying dozens of characters in a play with eight plotlines and a two tier set that allows for pairs of plotlines to be played out simultaneously. Oh, and it’s performed in Spanish, with English supertitles.

It’s a lot to grasp but the rewards are many, especially for those who enjoy film as much as live theatre. Writer/director Mariano Pensotti is concerned with how reality and the movies intertwine, and he has whipped up a clever, fast paced show-and-tell on the topic. In a series of intercut vignettes, he examines the lives of four fictional film directors and measures them against the projects that occupy their minds. As a scene from one of the director’s lives plays out on the bottom half of the set, a scene from the film that he or she is working on is acted out on the upper level, as if we were watching an extended split screen within a motion picture. Dialog between characters is limited and at times simply and intentionally overpowered by patches of lengthy narration performed by various members of the cast, passing a microphone back and forth, sometimes from off stage, sometimes in the center of the action though invisible to the other characters. Scenes flow into each other without pause, with props appearing just before they are needed via a very busy stagehand, so we are visually anticipating the arrival of one character while still caught up in the moment at hand. In its best moments, you forget you are watching a live performance and feel a bit as if you have been transported across town to Film Forum and are viewing an Almodóvar flick.

The four directors each have their own troubled existence to worry about, and their own cinematic style which they use to vent their grief or anger. There is Gabriel (Javier Lorenzo) who is set on making a romantic comedy until his own bad medical news overtakes him. In an especially nifty metaphysical twist, he befriends the star of his film, brings him home to his family, and soon finds himself being replaced by him. Mariela (Vanesa Maja) has a fascination with all things Soviet. While making a hilariously staged documentary exploring movie musicals of the USSR, she falls for a local comrade. Ultimately, she goes to Russia, with love, but finds something altogether different. Nadia (Juliana Muras) cannot overcome an absent father in real life or on film, and Lucas (Marcelo Subiotto) has his own inner demon: Ronald McDonald. While holding down a lowly job at Mickey D’s, he directs a movie about a man who has been kidnapped and made to dress up as the clown each day and hand out flyers. If you were not scared of clowns before, costumer Mariana Tirantte’s visually stunning kidnapped Ronald will change that.

The English supertitles, projected across the façade that separates the two stage areas, are not always word-for-word, and one gets the idea from the laughter in the audience by those who know Spanish, that a little is lost in the translation and, of course, in the timing. Still, Pensotti’s messages about the duality of the creative sole and the fleshy body are clear in lines like, “Two lives are more balanced than one” and in his discussion of Einstein’s montage theory which states that two ideas, superimposed, create a third. It all makes for a compelling and thought provoking night. If only there had been popcorn.

Cineastas – Written and directed by Mariano Pensotti.

WITH: Horacio Acosta, Juliana Muras, Javier Lorenzo, Marcelo Subiotto, Vanesa Maja.

Sets and costumes by Mariana Tirantte; music and sound design by Diego Vainer; lighting by Alejandro Le Roux; stage manager, Leandro Orellano. Presented by the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater; 425 Lafayette Street, 212-967-7555, Through January 11. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.