Monday, July 22, 2013

I Wanted to Be Usefrul

I Wanted to Be Useful was written by Thomas OlĂ©ron Evans and is my first experience with UCLU’s Radio Drama-making.  It’s the seemingly simple story of Garry Martins (Rob Beale), killed in a car accident on 16 February 2012, and taken to the corporate, bureaucratic headquarters of (St.) Peter (Stuart Moss) in some (simulation of?) the bucolic English countryside.  Like many of those who have found themselves knocking at Heaven’s door, Garry is being taken to account for his life.  Did he live it with some spark of genius that qualifies him for ascending to Heaven?  What does he need to say to convince the rather smarmy and quota-obsessed Peter that “being useful” is enough toward the criteria of having lived a good life?  It’s an enjoyable and thought-provoking piece.  

Red, Granny, and Wolfowitz

I’ve decided recently that anything from Misfits Audio is bound to be good.  Distorted Fables:  Red, Granny, and Wolfowitz is another example of their creativity and wiliness to experiment.  Like all of the Distorted Fables, Red, Granny and Wolfowitz is engaged in breaking the fourth wall and in offering very funny reworkings of classic fairy tales.  “Little Red Riding Hood” is forced through the meat-grinder of the Dragnet-like cop show, though everyone involved is rather incompetent.  There’s Metcalf Mahoney, the photographer, and deadpan Detective Mac Adams, investigating a disturbance in the house of Red’s grandmother.  Adams is joined by Detective Nicholls, a bizarre character to say the least.  Granny says she was attacked by a “furball,” which Nicholls interprets literally as something “the size of a softball, maybe slightly larger, soft to the touch, feels nice on your face . . .”  

Nicholls is directed to the wolf lying on the ground in Granny’s house. “His ID proves that this furball is you.”  Granny explains that the wolf has stolen her identity, while Adams implores the Dragnet-type music (which you thought was nondiegetic but was, in fact, diegetic) to stop.  While Red and Grandmother identify the wolf as, well, a wolf, Nicholls points out that “he could just be a mountain man with a long nose.”  Red explains that she was bringing some French crullers—“not the famous Parchesi player”—to her grandmother and being near-sighted, mistook the wolf for her granny. The wolf, when Red had figured out what was going on, tried to escape and ran smack into a wall. “You’ve been watching too many late night detective shows, ma’am.”  

Grandmother explains that she called Red the night before—“nights and weekends are free”—to ask her to come over with some strawberry tarts.  At that point, Adams accuses Granny of luring the wolf over (though I’m still unclear for what purpose) and feeding him mind-altering berry tarts.  At that point, the wolf wakes up and introduces himself as Special Agent Johnny Wolfowitz and says that “This was a simple training exercise.”  He explains that after this he was meant to go visit the Three Little Pigs to investigate their shoddy building practices.  Just when you thought the bumbling detectives were more obtuse than Stephen Fry in Gosford Park, Detective Adams realizes that Wolfowitz is lying and already ate the Three Little Pigs. 

I think what makes these works so funny is that all the characters act contrary to the situation.  You think you know what to expect, and when something completely different happens, you erupt into surprised laughter.  Furthermore, when you start to be convinced by Wolfowitz’s explanation, the detectives surprise you by revealing some aplomb under all that haplessness.  Furthermore, we should be impressed by the fact that Glenn Hascall plays both Metcalf and Wolfowitz and that KD Dehnert plays both Granny and Red!  Tom Chalker played Adams and Delvin Kenser played Nicholls. 

Leinigen and the Ants

I only learned about a month ago that the Fitzrovia Radio Hour, in addition to their live touring performances which pastiche (both affectionately and knowingly) old-time radio, recorded some of their early live performances (though not of their own material).  I wasn’t sure what to expect of these plays, which they’ve generously made available on their website; part of the charm of their original material is its rewriting of the genre as well as the visual element.  I’m happy to say that Leinegen and the Ants, an action-adventure script from the US, has translated very well in podcast format.  

Although I can’t verify it, I can imagine that the script would have come from something like Carleton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery serials. It hasn’t got any parts for women, but one can see why a script like this was chosen:  it’s fun to act, and it’s even more fun to imagine.  We can only surmise, by the audience’s laughter, what kind of crazy stuff the cast was doing live to achieve the sound effects, but this detracts not at all from the experience.  

It concerns some British explorers in “the darkest heart of Africa.”  The manly Leinigen has been warned by his neighbor Carruthers that he needs to abandon his farm because a wave of man-eating ants are swarming by; “nothing of you [will] be left but a skeleton picked clean!”  Leinigen wants to stay and fight because, in his opinion, “Intelligence directed by right always makes man a master of his fate.”  Leinigen asks his African staff (that’s a euphemistic way of putting it) if they will stay and help defend his farm.  They will, if Leinigen ensures the safety of their wives and children further down the river.  Leinigen sounds a bit like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast:  “I knew the men would give me that answer.”   Carruthers’ masculinity impugned, he eventually agrees to stay and help Leinigen and his men.  They try various techniques to keep the ants at bay, including using dammed flood water, and a wall of petrol flame.  They watch a springbok covered by aunts, and Leinigen has to dive into ants heroically in order to save everyone else.  He will recover (somehow).     

Coconut shell horses and all, it would have been nice if Leinigen and the Ants could have seen Leinigen’s men heroically find the solution while brawny but not brainy Leinigen carried out their orders. 

The Rats in the Walls

The Rats in the Walls is an adaptation by 19 Nocturne Boulevard (why do I always want to write Avenue??) of an H.P. Lovecraft tale with which I’m unfamiliar (and frankly, there’s a lot of Lovecraft with which I am unfamiliar).  To be honest, I had rather mixed feelings about the only other 19NB play I listened to, Puppets, so that is what has taken me so long to give them another try (which is ludicrous, considering their output and importance and doubly so, considering Julie Hoverson does a great deal of the work herself, and we female audio drama enthusiasts must support each other).  To say I was pleasantly surprised would be partially true but might detract from the fact I thought this was a damn good play.  Again, I don’t know how faithful it is to the source material, but I don’t really care.  It’s very well-told, suspenseful, and wicked fun.

The play concerns Mrs Delapor, an American widow who in 1926 moves to Exom Priory in Anchester, England, where her invalided son, Alfie, stayed before he left for active duty—she has bought the place and intends to “lavish my remaining time and money” on it.  Rats in the Walls concerns itself with the horrors of the First World War, but tangentially, not in-your-face, helped in large part because of the oblique way it invokes Alfie’s voice, and its unreliable narrator.  Blackie is another important character, Mrs Delapor’s faithful cat, and so is Captain Norris, Alfie’s best friend during the War.  

The story is complex.  Alfie is available to us only in his letters, performed by the actor and backgrounded by ragtime music to signify they come from 1918.  Mrs Delapor is made aware by Cap. Norris of Exom Priory’s “evil past,” and while one might be tempted to lump Rats in the Walls with the works of Oscar Wilde and Edith Wharton, it is not that interested, satirically speaking, in American pragmatism versus British, old-world credulity backed by aristocratic tradition.  Exom does have its share of gossips/historians who would be at home in The Canterville Ghost or “Afterward,”[1] Laura and Eugenie, who give Mrs Delapor the full history of her star-crossed ancestors:  In 1600, a Delapor murdered his entire family, then fled.  The workmen who are fixing up the place for habitation are well-aware of the rumors, as in “Thurnley Abbey” by Perceval Landon or, for that matter, Louis Noura’s Echo Point[2].  Furthermore, Mrs Delapor does have her moments of pigheaded American expediency:  “I wonder if they installed that creak with the door”—if she didn’t, it wouldn’t make a very entertaining story.  (Alfie is more apt to comment on Anglo-American relations.  “If anyone ever offers to talk Freud at you, show them the door.”)

Mrs Delapor will need her pragmatism as her staunch allies are not able to offer her much assistance.  When she starts hearing rats in the walls—very confidently and creepily evoked by the production sound effects—and Blackie, as well as the other Priory cats, start going berserk, one might forgive Cap. Norris for thinking she’s a bit crazy.  “I’ve been at war, ma’am,” he assures her.  “I’ve had all the ‘terrified’ clean knocked of me.”  No doubt he has, but there is much more to come.  Mrs Delapor has terrible dreams.  She follows the sounds of the rats—“a lean, filthy, ravenous army”—to the lowest cellar, and though she sets up traps, “all were sprung, yet all were tenantless.”  Eventually, she and Norris find a crevice between the floor and the pagan altars in the cellar, the Temple of Cybele[3], about which “the antiquarians have been very enthusiastic.”  

When I think of Lovecraft, I also tend to think of Mike Mignola, for the reason that they both seem to like when antiquarian adventurers find skeletons in grottos that are neither wholly human nor animal.  I won’t spoil too much of Rats in the Walls as it is the kind of play you need to experience for yourself and about which you want to know as little as possible before setting out.  There are antiquarians, there are bones, there are creepy children, voodoo priests, and rats aplenty.  It’s clear that Hoverson and her cast had a good time while making this play, and it’s a great, creepy thriller.  To tell you more would do you a disservice, but I enjoyed it very much.

[1] The BBC has done a very good reading of the former by Alistair Macgowan and a full-cast play of the latter, broadcast as part of The Female Ghost series.
[2] One of my favorite plays broadcast on the BBC in 2012.
[3] I’ve just learned in The Ancient Guide to the Modern World that frenzied followers of Cybele occasionally would self-castrate.  ‘Nuff said.

You Are There: The Alamo

Interestingly enough, both episode 6 (“The Alamo”) and episode 7 (“The Last Days of Pompeii”) were written by Herb Kunich in 1947, but feel extremely different in style and delivery.  Both are well-made and acted, but “The Alamo” is less dynamic and less even-handed in its reporting. 
It’s March 6, 1836, and CBS reporters John Daly and Ken Roberts are reporting from the Mexican lines and Washington-on-the-Brazos respectively.  The US is neutral in the conflict between the Republic of Texas and Mexico so, in Daly’s words, “the CBS mobile unit is okay.”  Roberts interviews Mrs Elias Benson, who, with her family walked 250 miles from Independence, Missouri, to Texas.  Her son Philip is among those defending the Alamo.  “Philip is where God put them.”  Roberts tells us that the Texans (or Texians as I believe they called themselves) have “American faces . . . The language is of the Tennessee hills, the Mohawk Valley, the farmlands, the frontiers.”  It’s almost as if this is Edward R. Murrow covering the Blitz in London again, trying to get the CBS listeners to invest and join in the conflict, on the side of the Texians (though in Murrow’s case, it was real, and in this case, they just want us to believe we are there in 1836).   Roberts also interviews Noah Smithwick from Kentucky, who came to Texas for “a chance to own some land.”  He had been a gunners’ mate in the Navy that fought in the War of 1812.  Lured by Moses Austin’s “tolerably good lies,” Smithwick and his friends had tried to “do our best to mind our own business.” Roberts is also there to interview General Sam Huston.  When asked if his army is ready to come to the aid of the garrison at the Alamo, he replies, “When is Texas not ready to fight?”  

John Daly on the Mexican lines then picks up a shortwave signal from the transmitter that was left in the Alamo.  It’s a message from Lt. Col. Travis.  “I shall never surrender!”  Davy Crockett has a long message to his constituency:  “Howdy . . . You must be wondering what an ex-Congressman is doing here. . . . Remember, if someone runs down a neighbor’s race or religion, remind him he’s out of joint with democracy.”  The battle commences shortly after Jackson Beck reports from Louisiana, where US volunteers are clambering aboard barges to relieve the men at the Alamo. 

I wonder why episode 6 doesn’t seize me the way episode 7 does.  It might be because of the propagandistic element—there was no one to side with in Pompeii other than the Pompeiians, and even though the reporting regarding the Nazarenes was sensitive, no one implied that CBS as a US network had any special linkage to the Christian tradition these people represented; as the reporter said, they were a sect that was causing trouble to the Roman Empire.  Though CBS was never explicitly identified as a Roman broadcast unit, the tone was meant to evoke that they were at least tangentially part of the community or nation upon which they were reporting.  CBS in “The Alamo” is clearly representing the US, which, although neutral in the conflict, is obviously sympathizing with the Republic of Texas.  Furthermore, we don’t really get to hear the Mexican point of view.  But this can’t be the only reason “The Alamo” isn’t as successful as “The Last Days of Pompeii”;  “The Surrender of Sitting Bull” never brought us direct interviews with Sitting Bull or any of the Lakota tribesmen, yet the actions of the US Army spoke quite vividly for themselves.