“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We are …live from the Victory Studio in downtown Irkutsk … It’s The At Home Field Guide brought to you by Soviet Free Radio Order and sponsored in part by One World Union Oyster Crackers. Make a soup a little less soupy, find them in the cracker aisle at your neighborhood State grocer.” (Host/Actor/Vocalist- Joe Curnutte)
So begins a live radio show broadcast against literally apocalyptic odds, by a skeleton crew at a makeshift radio station somewhere in The Soviet Union. Whether you’re nostalgic about classic radio, a science fiction fan or just interested in an evening of arresting, skillfully realized theater, you’ll enjoy this engaging collaborative piece by The Mad Ones.
Actress/Vocalist Anastasia Volinski (Stephanie Wright Thompson) opens with as twangy a version of “Back in the Saddle Again” as you’re likely to hear outside original recordings. “Yeehaw!” Russia accents disappear when the cast performs the Iowa based play-within-the-play or sings; otherwise abstract expressions become animated.
“We have a lovely show for you tonight, my favorite story—OUR favorite story … a story from a lost time and a lost place. It’s a story we all know inside and out … STILL it speaks to the heart of us…”enthuses the Host. But first, it’s time for Science Saturdays with resident expert, the eminent Dr. Mischa Romanav (Marc Bovino). Each episode of the drama is followed by a brief segment such as On this Day in…or Trivia Time, an outdated musical number, live commercial, or recorded message from the State (in Russian).
The talented cast ricochets seamlessly from playing corn-belt teenagers dealing with emotion, hormones and actual danger to depicting mugged attitudes required by features. In between, they resume their own stoic characters. A wide range of retro American sound effects and music is expertly cued by the Host. Increasingly potent power outages -equipment screeches and sputters, lights flicker and often go out- subvert the program. The outside world encroaches.
Playwrights Marc Bovino and Joe Curnutte have created an imaginative piece whose play-within-the-play dialogue is as cinematic, literate, and fun as “real-time” goings on are intriguing and compelling. The situation, if not the particulars, is also disturbingly credible.
Joe Curnutte (Host) sings well, moves with graceful precision, delivers arrogance-laced, corn-pone dialect, an appealing Russian accent (his hammy commercials are terrific), and the nifty embodiment of a Philip Marlowe character, all with quick-change facility. Curnutte’s focus when interruptions are their most intrusive is like watching a pressure cooker.
Marc Bovino (Dr. Mischa Romanov) has a flair for deadpan pathos. He portrays the socially awkward, fatalistic nerd with unstudied finesse. When acting as Samuel within the episodic play, Bovino imbues Mischa’s vulnerability with a believable voice. We “get” him completely in both roles.
As a vocalist, Stephanie Wright Thompson (Anastasia Volinski) sounds straight out of the Grand Ole Opry. Her characterization of Susie (play within the play) is fresh and sincere. Thompson offers no defining personal qualities for Anastasia. I feel a few are warranted.
Michael Dalto (Alexei “Tumbleweed” Petrovya) an excellent musician accompanies all vocals on guitar and harmonica.
Director Lila Neugebauer has done a splendid job. Timing, which is paramount to this particular piece, is under perfect Machiavellian control. A large, deep staging area —and beyond—is utilized to great effect. The actors’ nuanced registration is just enough to imply unseen reality without giving anything away. Symbiosis with sound and light design is impeccable.
Having praised, I also take issue with three choices: Firstly, there’s a point early on when the three protagonists introduce themselves to listeners as Susie, Samuel, and Alasdair, characters in the dramatized narrative. Adroitly written descriptions are inexplicably raced through as if the actors were auctioneers. Secondly, we have next to no sense of the relationship between the three who have clearly been working together for some time as well as being embattled by the same outside situation. Surely something might be offered. Lastly, an entire song in Russian leaves the audience clueless.
Laura Jellinek (Set Design) has created a completely credible, provincial, down-on-its-heels studio. The many old carpets seem just right. Her design of the perimeter is inspired.
The play would simply not be what it is without Stowe Nelson’s extraordinary Sound Design. From the immensely varied theatrical sound effects and illuminating music to failing technical channels of the facility itself, his work is imaginative, meticulous, and affecting. The very last effect is masterful.
Top photo by Ian Saville, left to right: Stephanie Wright Thompson as Anastasia Volinski and Joe Curnutte as The Host
The Mad Ones production of
Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War
Conceived by Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, & Lila Neugebauer
And created with the ensemble
Written by Marc Bovino & Joe Curnette
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
The New Ohio Theater
154 Christopher Street