REVIEW: Talk Radio (State Theatre)

Small storefront ends its inaugural season with a roar

 

State Theatre - Talk Radio - Production Image 1

   
State Theatre presents
   
Talk Radio
   
Written by Eric Bogosian
Directed by Ross Matsuda
at
Heartland Studio Theater, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through August 15th   | 
tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

When Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio premiered in 1987, shock jocks and morning zoo crews dominated the air waves. You couldn’t drive to work without some knucklehead on the dial making crass jokes or belittling his audience. It was sadism and masochism at its most commercial.

Today, the market has changed, but unfortunately not for the better. Radio—now competing for attention with television and the Internet—is threatened to become a relic of the past. And so, to survive, it has tweaked its format. Many of the shock jocks and zoo crews of yesterday couldn’t adapt. But some have evolved into a new beast that is even more vile and wretched than a thousand Howard Sterns. That’s right. The talking head. The political pundit. The Glenn Beck.

State Theatre - Talk Radio - Production Image 2 The play’s antihero is of this Glenn Beck ilk minus the religious piety but with the need to belittle, fear monger and win every argument intact. His name is Barry Champlain (Nathan Randall), and he’s a Cleveland late-night DJ, who as of tomorrow will be going national.

We get a sneak peak into a charged episode of the show. Callers include a 15-year-old pregnant girl whose deadbeat boyfriend skipped town, a woman who is deathly afraid of her garbage disposal and a teenaged burnout whose girlfriend may or may not have just suffered a drug overdose.

Intermittently, between this string of callers, we get a sneak peak inside Barry’s psyche. His colleagues provide brief monologues that detail their relationship with Barry, revealing a confused and deeply disturbed individual who has turned his back on himself only to recede further into the depths of dementia.

As caller after caller chimes in with another fear, question or inane statement, Barry becomes increasingly agitated. Slowly, the radio host begins to question himself and his audience. Is he an entertainer or a public servant? Is he part of the solution or the mouthpiece for the problem?

Talk Radio is only as good as your Barry Champlain. And the State Theatre has found an amazing Champlain in Randall. His performance is unwavering in its callousness and coldness. His eyes are fiery with a flame that is at once both outwardly searing and self-engulfing. This is a character who is consumed by himself, and whose self-vitriol is projected out to millions of listeners. He is not a likeable character, and Randall doesn’t make you like him. But Randall does make you believe in him; that he is real and right in front of you and that you should hate him. And I hated him, which is why I loved Randall’s performance.

The supporting actors all do good work, and Tyler Ravelson, who plays the stoner teenager Kent, deserves to be spotlighted. Growing up in suburbia, I’ve seen my share of dopey doped up teenagers, and I can say that Ravelson’s portrayal is a carbon copy. In addition, there is such a smoothness to his performance, so much so that when Kent suddenly commandeers the in-studio mic, it feels spontaneous and unscripted.

State Theatre - Talk Radio - Nathan Randall and Tyler Ravelson

The production’s only drawback is the play’s use of a video feed during the first half. Rather than sticking with voiceovers for callers, the play’s director, Ross Matsuda, decided to go with a Webcam feed projected on a translucent screen behind Barry. The images are a distraction from the callers’ words, and as an audience member, I want to use my imagination to envision Barry’s listeners.

In a world of 24-hour news cycles that merge editorial with opinion, that live by the motto “If it bleeds, it leads,” that serve less to inform and more to threaten, Talk Radio is a highly relevant piece of drama. Who knows? You may even find some solace in the play because, although Barry Champlain might not embody the solution, his existence at least reveals that others out there know there’s a problem.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Extra Credit:

REVIEW: AjaxAntigone (The State Theatre)

State Theatre brings guts and talent to successful production

Ajaxantigoneproductionstill1of11

The State Theatre presents:

AjaxAntigone

By Sophocles
Adapted by
Tim Speicher and Ross Matsuda
Directed by Tim Speicher
at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 621 W. Belmont
through April 3rd
(more info)

review by Barry Eitel

The men and women that put together The State Theatre, a company that delivered their first ever production just last year, radiate ambition. It is ballsy choice for a brand new theatre company to tackle anything Greek—the Classics are some of the best-known dramas of all time, and they can really, really suck if done poorly. But as if Production stills from the play "Ajaxantigone" putting up just one millennia-old play wasn’t a big enough risk, adapter/artistic director Tim Speicher mashed-up two Sophoclean tragedies. With the straightforward title AjaxAntigone, Speicher’s amalgamation shreds up and stitches together SophoclesAjax and Antigone. With anything this daring there is bound to be hiccups and missteps, but the State’s bravado pays off and solidifies the company as a powerful new voice in Chicago theatre.

This isn’t some ancient version of those crossover episodes of CSI where one team travels to another’s city; Ajax never officially meets Antigone. Both stories are told concurrently, with a lot of thematic overlap. Antigone, if you recall, is one of the first obstinate teenagers in literature, disobeying the laws of the king in order to bury the body of her dishonored brother. Ajax is a more obscure play that revolves around the warrior Ajax, hero of the Trojan War. Basically, he slaughters some innocent livestock in a stroke of madness and then has to deal with the consequences. Speicher’s creation cuts, pastes, deletes and inserts from Sophocles. Never skimping on the physical, the State’s production plays out Ajax’s battle with the sheep, something that would never be shown in Mediterranean amphitheaters. Teiresias is cut from this Antigone. Also, Speicher’s version plays up Antigone’s story and plays down Creon. This is a sharp divergence from Sophocles’ play, where Creon is the real focus, not the titular teenager.

The grand Greek chorus is pared down to just one woman, the sparky Sarah Sapperstein, who does a majestic job of navigating us through both plays as well as portraying some of the smaller characters. Both plays are performed by an ensemble of six, with a lot of doubled-casting. Kyra Morris is a rich Antigone, stoic and proud—she makes the character a tragic hero. Chris Amos does double duty as Odysseus and Creon with charm and passion. Mark Umstatd’s shirtless Ajax overpowers the space with his yelling. This mars several scenes and draws the audience out of the play.

Ajaxantigoneproductionstill10of11 Production stills from the play "Ajaxantigone"
Production stills from the play "Ajaxantigone" Production stills from the play "Ajaxantigone" Ajaxantigoneproductionstill9of11

Speicher’s treatment of both plays is layered and lyrical, although there are missteps. African-American spirituals are used throughout, but they do nothing but distract from the stories on-stage. Kylie Edmonds’ costumes are appropriately distinguished, while the set is less complete. The scenic design consists of two mobile boxes that are used to create a myriad of environments among walls draped with white cloth. The abstraction is great, but the boxes beg more aesthetics and less functionality. And although Mbo Mtshali’s choreography is striking and spot-on much of the time, the production also has sloppy moments: actors get too close to the audience, and in one fit of madness, the barefoot Ajax accidentally stepped on the “blade” of his “sword” (made of wood). Forgivable offenses, but one has to think that they could be avoided, given the precision of the beautiful and demanding choreography.

The State’s audacity is evident in all aspects of the production. On opening night, they actually encouraged the audience to flip open their phones and tweet, text, snap, and update away (although I think Patti Lupone’s thoughts on the subject were still ingrained in most people’s heads). The State Theatre presents itself as bold, new, and edgy—AjaxAntigone proves that the company is good as well.

 

Rating: ★★★

Production stills from the play "Ajaxantigone"

Extra Credit