Isn’t radio great? Not single format radio with twenty minute or less music sweeps, then a block of commercials followed by another music sweep. Nor political talk radio with provocateurs full of hyperbole continually preaching outrage to their choir. But the other radio. The one that through comedy, or variety, or drama creates a theatre of the mind. The one that is rarely heard stateside anymore but used to be. That kind of radio.
Now playing at Space 55 at its small theatre on N.18th Avenue in Phoenix is the locally written radio comedy by Carrie Behrens, Night of the Chicken Episode 2: The Venda Gram of DOOM! Andrea Deandra Hafferton, known simply as Andi (Meredith Howell) is a high-schooler with a problem. Because of an experimental accident in Mr. K’s classroom, the teenager now has the misfortune of turning into a monster from time to time, usually without warning. The real problem is not so much the curse itself, which is certainly a major issue by any accounts, but what she turns into.
Had it been a vampire or a werewolf, or perhaps even Andi’s equivalent of a Mr. Hyde, at least it would have been respectable. You know where you stand in the pantheon of the classic Hammer Horror monsters and what to expect with any of those creatures. But Andi turns into a chicken. A squawking, b’gawking chicken. For a high-school teenager trying to fit in, turning into a chicken can be so annoying, not to mention the damage it does to her shoes and sneakers every time those chicken claws suddenly burst through and spread out.
Night of the Chicken 2 – there are four parts altogether – is written and presented as a radio comedy where the performers play a variety of roles, changing their voices and their delivery to represent each new character, and where Foley artists add everyday sound effects representing a closing door, breaking glass, blowing winds, and in this case, the stretching of bones achieved by the twisting of an empty plastic bottle. Though while written for radio, it’s not presented as radio.
There are no studio mics for the voices, no one wears headphones, the actors hold script files rather than loose pages that are allowed to fall to the floor at the conclusion of each read (you can’t turn a page in a radio play; the noise would be picked up) and there’s no lighted On Air sign on the studio wall. In fact, there’s no recreation of a broadcasting studio at all. The backdrop is a painted wall with high-school signs promoting the name of the school – it’s the Ronald Reagan Junior High – a track meet event, and Lottie’s cafeteria menu, a place that serves salads on a bun and a hamburger but with no bun. Night of the Chicken 2 is really a scripted radio play presented in performance.
Characters are in costume. Depending on who they’re playing, they change wigs or hats and speak not so much from their scripts but to each other, their lines memorized. Plus, there’s a lighting design that alters for atmosphere and effect, something not required when recording for the theatre of the mind. Even the two Foley artists (Aleksandra Hollis and the playwright Carrie Behrens) have a costume. They’re wearing white medical coats while in their ‘lab’ inventively creating the sounds.
By presenting the play in this manner, director Kim Porter has crafted a fun style of presentation that never quits – as soon as it begins, the play takes off in high-gear until its fade ninety minutes later – but it also removes much of what is required on the part of the audience. By presenting the story in this way, much of the work is already done for you; no imagination required. There may be music stands that represent where characters are ‘reading’ their lines, but you’re actually seeing the events through behavior, costume, and lighting. The real invention comes from the Foley artists and the sounds.
In addition to the stretching of bones via the twist of a plastic bottle, there are slaps on leather bags, zippers, dramatic stabs of musical chords and scene change notes played on a keyboard, and when characters talk on a phone, the players on the other end of the line have their voices filtered through the echo of a glass jug. That kind of comic invention never grows old.
Having Andi’s inner monster manifest itself as a chicken is good comedy; it was the essence of burlesque in a bygone era. For whatever reason, a turkey never worked. It doesn’t even sound funny. But a chicken – especially a hairless chicken – always got a laugh. Carrie Behrens fast-paced script isn’t necessarily witty. There are no great zingers, one-liners, or punchlines to quote. But what makes Night of the Chicken 2 funny is the energy of the cast and how the players – six cast members playing twenty-one characters – deliver the lines.
Though, you can’t help wondering how much funnier things would have been had the production actually recreated a radio studio with actors simply standing before a microphone with scripts in hand rather than giving the players movement in costumes, different hats and wigs, and with visual lighting effects for changes of scenes. When the mind does the work it’s amazing how more effectively alive the play would have become, and less busy looking, particularly when the voice work of all six players is delivered as well as it is here. And it would still have remained good theatre.
The standout is Andi herself, Meredith Howell. As the lead character and the story’s narrator, Howell is always on with never a chance to rest or to catch her breath. Her background is in improvisation. She was trained, now plays and even teaches improv at The Torch Theatre on N. Central Avenue in Phoenix. According to Space 55’s program notes, this is her first attempt at scripted theatre. She needs to be in more. If Night of the Chicken 2 proves anything it’s that Meredith Howell is an extremely good actor.
Night of the Chicken Episode 2 continues at Space 55 Theatre until March 17
Pictures Courtesy of Rodrigo Izquierdo of Reagle Photography