The Ringling International Arts Festival has developed a reputation for adventurous art that some people might find unattractive, if not off-putting.
Just last year, there was a version of "Hamlet" performed in Farsi, a Russian-language political performance piece by the Belarus Free Theatre and a somber flamenco piece. They were impressive shows that had drawn critical praise around the world, but they weren't exactly crowd-pleasers.
This year's sixth annual festival -- the first that the Ringling has put together without collaboration with the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York -- has a different attitude.
"This is all very high-energy, absolutely accessible performance," said Dwight Currie the Ringling's curator of performance. "We're not performing theater in Russian with English subtitles this year."
The works in this year's festival have just as much artistic merit as last year's more extreme fare, Currie said, and they're just as creative. But they're likely to appeal to a wider audience.
"Maybe 'accessible' isn't the right word, because that almost sounds condescending," he said. "It's not that they're not challenging. It's not that they lack depth. But they're involving. They reach out and they pull you in."
The festival's format has been re-energized as well, Currie said. This year, seven groups will perform 30 shows over four days. Most of the shows are only about an hour long, and there's stuff going on around the grounds between shows, so it's easy to spend the day at the Ringling and take in several shows.
"You want people to have a festival experience," Currie said.
The one longer show, about two hours with intermission, is called "The Intergalactic Nemesis, Book One: Target Earth."
The show had its genesis in an Austin, Texas, coffee shop some 16 years ago, when a group of local artists got the idea to create a new radio drama. It evolved over the years and now includes three actors playing 30 roles, an onstage sound-effects artist and a display of about 1,200 original comic book-style images. It has also spawned two sequels.
"The show is pretty much rigidly structured," said Chris Gibson, who has been one of the actors in the touring production for seven years. "But we really have played up the idea of the audience being part of the show. They cheer for the hero and boo for the villain. That keeps it fresh and interesting for us."
(Gibson hails from Tampa, and was a familiar presence on stages in Tampa and St. Petersburg before he moved to Orlando, and then to Austin.)
One great thing about "Intergalactic Nemesis," Currie said, is that it's undeniably innovative but still has broad appeal.
"You can't help being engaged by this show," he said. "It's a real departure for the festival in that three generations of a family could see it together and they'd all enjoy it.'
Currie balked at recom
mending any one show, because there's so much variety in this year's festival and there should be something for just about anyone's taste. But he said he's drawn to Duo Amal, virtuosic pianists who play classical and contemporary pieces. Their performances get an emotional boost because one member of the duo is Israeli and the other is Palestinian.
"They're amazing musicians," Currie said. "But then you look at their faces, you look in their eyes, and you think about where they're from, what's going on over there, and it can make you cry."
The festival starts on Wednesday with a celebration in the Ringling Courtyard.
There are three performances that evening, all at 7 p.m., and the opening-night prices includes your choice of shows, a Champagne toast before curtain and a party that includes a performance of a dance piece "Bolero Sarasota" by Keigin + Company (one of the groups on the regular RIAF schedule for this year), hors d'oeuvres, beer, wine and fireworks.
You'll have to pay the opening-night prices ($90-$100 for Ringling members, $115-$125 for nonmembers) to see any of the shows on Wednesday, but they're all presented again over the following three days, with prices ranging from to $20 to $35. You can also just attend the Courtyard Celebration ($60 members/$75 for nonmembers).
All the shows are in theaters on the Ringling grounds, and the Mildred Sainer Pavilion, a very short walk to the south of the Ringling.
Here's the schedule:
The Pedrito Martinez Group featuring Ariacne Trujillo: A virtuosic rumba quartet, 7 p.m. Oct. 15, 5 p.m. Oct. 16, 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 17 and 5 p.m. Oct. 18 in the Cook Theatre.
Tangram: An imaginative production that combines of dance, circus and physical theater, 7 p.m. Oct. 15 , 5 p.m. Oct. 16, 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 17 and 5 p.m. Oct. 18. in the Historic Asolo Theater.
Duo Amal: Bishara Haroni and Yaron Kohlberg: The preeminent pianists in their homelands perform a repertoire ranging from baroque to modern, 7 p.m. Oct. 15, 8 p.m. Oct. 16, 5 p.m. Oct. 17 and 2 p.m., Oct. 18 in the Mildred Sainer Pavilion.
Keigwin + Company: Contemporary choreography with a theatrical sensibility, 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 16, 5 p.m. Oct. 17 and 2 p.m. Oct. 18 in the Historic Asolo Theater.
Vijay Iyer Trio: One of the most celebrated ensembles in jazz creates with an emphasis on rhythmically intricate music, 5 p.m. Oct. 16, 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 17 and 5 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Mildred Sainer Pavilion.
The Table: A whimsical work of theater featuring astonishing puppetry, 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 16, 5 p.m. Oct. 17 and 2 p.m. Oct. 18 in the Cook Theatre.
"The Intergalactic Nemesis, Book One: Target Earth": A mash-up of sci-fi radio drama and graphic storytelling, 5 p.m. Oct. 16, 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 17 and 2 p.m. Oct. 18 in the Mertz Theatre.
Details: Oct. 15-18, The Ringling, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. Information: 941-358-3180, ringling.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.