nytheatre.com review by Victoria Linchong
October 7, 2010
Radio Purgatory is a wildly inventive absurdist musical romp that both satirizes and celebrates the cigarette-sucking private eyes and hard-boiled dames of '30s and '40s noir. Created by TheatreTHE, an ensemble of gifted musicians who also happen to be performance artists, Radio Purgatory defies genres and disciplines, reminding me of a tone poem or a free jazz riff or maybe a surreal soundscape come to life. Black and white imagery and original music link a series of stream-of-consciousness vignettes that veer just beyond the outermost reaches of logic. References to an eclectic assortment of films abound including Sunset Boulevard, Branded to Kill, Metropolis, Casablanca, Blood of a Poet, and Santa Sangre. Liberally sprinkled with pulp fiction vernacular and garnished with a twist, Radio Purgatory is a highly intoxicating frothy concoction with an acerbic bite.
The loose narrative revolves around the demise of Dick Flavor, Private Eye. Floating in the netherworld just after his sordid death, he recounts his fateful meeting and subsequent relationship with The Dame in an effort to piece together his last moments. His hallucinatory recollection is peppered with wacky radio ads and an array of oddballs that include a poker-faced percussive plug-ugly with a butt tattoo and a goateed tuba-playing granny. Taking free association to extremes, Radio Purgatory continually ratchets up the absurdity. A slug fest turns into the clapping and stomping of a flamenco dance, which causes The Dame to sing and pop out a baby with a fat cigar, who in turn is slapped and kicked. When not gleefully pummeling each other, the sextet expertly tosses out some tunes and appear in Tatsushi Tahara's inspired short film that brilliantly sews together the sound effects and disjointed dialogue of a pastiche of noir radio plays.
The mastermind behind this genre-defying mash-up is the mercurial Aldo Perez, who not only plays Dick Flavor, but also designed the soundscape and wrote the music and lyrics. As the svelte platinum-blonde foil to Perez's perpetually perplexed tough, Jenny Lee Mitchell gracefully glides through the mayhem, occasionally pausing to play the clarinet or sing a German lieder. Rounding out the cast are Richard Ginnochio, Matt Muszynski, Jonathon Roberts, and Matthew Talmage, all top-notch, both in music-making and merrymaking on Karl Allen's tilted Caligari-inspired set.
There are plenty of astonishing moments, but what I found most remarkable is that Perez does more than just comment on radio drama, he actually transforms the obsolescent art by stripping it down to its sonic essence and turning it into a sound collage. Perhaps the only thing that mars the brilliance of this production is that it fails to find a satisfying conclusion after a few digressions too many. Nevertheless, Radio Purgatory is a wonderfully ribald riff on radio noir that finds the sublime in the ridiculous.