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Midnight Radio returns with Secret Agents & Spies

Bricolage has found an ingenious way to make a staged reading actually entertaining.

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At first glance, watching a radio show doesn't sound like the most theatrical of events. But if you let that dissuade you, you'll never find out what a fun evening Bricolage's Midnight Radio series can be.

Each Midnight Radio installment — the series is now in its fourth year — takes us into a studio where a radio program is being broadcast live.

Which, of course, it isn't. The show is solely for the people in the theater. In a sense, Bricolage has found an ingenious way to make a staged reading actually entertaining. The actors have the scripts in front of them because, well, when you're on the radio, it doesn't matter. This has two big logistical plusses for the company: less rehearsal time and a minimal physical budget. And it draws us into the show as well; there's a very real sense that we're part of the creative process. That's due, in part, to Tami Dixon as a badly overworked "sound department" who, interestingly and hilariously, creates the aural landscape and sound gags right in front of us.

Each episode of Midnight Radio (and there are three installments this season) is organized around a theme, here Secret Agents & Spies. For a long time, it's a fairly free-wheeling event, with ad parodies from the show's "sponsors," a fake newscast and a long-ish lampoon of a '40s film-noir-style private-dick story.

These segments are just silly fun, filled with groan-worthy puns, loopy characters and improbable realities. Director Jeffrey Carpenter keeps a firm hand on the madness with strong attention to pace and detail. No writer is actually credited, but I'm assuming it's Dixon, Carpenter and cast contributing the material. Since it's a radio show, Secret Agents & Spies also provides cast members with a terrific opportunity to display their vocal chops — and Elena Alexandratos, Jeffrey Howell, Jason McCune and Bria Walker pull out all the stops. In an actual play, it would be called "hamming it up," but here it's pure zaniness.

There are even a few musical treats. Keyboard player (and ukulele-ist) Deana Muro is the entire orchestra and provides a whole 'nuther layer of nuttiness. Each performance also features a solo turn by a local musician; the night I was there, Pittsburgh jazz maverick Eric DeFade did things with a saxophone I didn't even know were possible.

It's true that such goofiness can get a little tiresome. But just as the show begins to drag, Bricolage wisely shifts stylistic gears. The evening's second half is a reading of "Every Frame Has a Silver Lining," which, as it turns out, is one of several radio plays Orson Welles did based on Harry Lime, the character he played in The Third Man. It's film noir again, but in a more somber vein, and a really fascinating piece of 1950s writing. Performed with enormous intelligence and style, "Every Frame" is a terrific end to a very fun night.

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