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Wartime hijinks, presented with Improbable Frequency

A comic verse musical set in WWII, Strawdog Theatre Company puts the bard back in bombardment.



"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars," Oscar Wilde famously wrote in Lady Windermere's Fan. The Irish authors of Improbable Frequency have put a twist on that quote from one of Ireland's greatest writers. "We are all in the gutter," goes the line in this 2004 play with music, "but some of us have an ear to the ground."

And well they should. Improbable Frequency is set in 1941 Dublin, at the height of the Blitz. Just across the Irish Sea, Hitler's Luftwaffe is bombing the hell out of England. Determined to maintain its recently won independence, Ireland is officially neutral. It's also a hotbed of espionage. Some Irish nationalists are cooperating with the Nazis, hoping to push the British out of the counties it still controls in the north.

These life-or-death struggles provide the context for Improbable Frequency. But the show itself isn't the slightest bit serious. Penned by Arthur Riordan with a musical assist from the members of pop duo Bell Helicopter, Conor Kelly and Sam Park, it mingles historical fact and figures with schoolboy whimsy, sometimes recalling a Monty Python sketch, a Tom Stoppard witfest, or the Vietnam-era British antiwar revue Oh! What a Lovely War.

Improbable Frequency first came to America in 2008, four years after its debut at the Dublin Theatre Festival. Now Strawdog Theatre Company is presenting the work's midwest premiere. Not a "book musical," since the songs and dances aren't designed to move the story forward, it has a script written entirely in verse and peppered with music-hall-style numbers that comment on the action. I may be wrong, but I suspect this engaging little oddity is the world's only science-fiction romantic spy comedy with singing.

The plot focuses on Tristram Faraday, an English crossword puzzle expert who's been recruited by British intelligence to break enemy codes. His assignment is to decipher what appear to be secret messages broadcast by an Irish radio host. The Brits think the deejay is helping the Nazi air command plan attacks by selecting songs whose titles contain clues about the weather along the English coast. Posing as a London Times reporter, Faraday heads for Dublin, which has become a sort of Emerald Isle Casablanca. His research leads him to the strange conclusion that the radio messages don't report on the weather—they actually influence it.

Into this fictional situation Riordan drops three historical figures who are noteworthy but not exactly household names in America. One is Nobel Prize-winning Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger—he of the notorious cat—portrayed here as a skirt-chasing perpetual adolescent. Another is writer Brian O'Nolan (aka Myles na gCopaleen), depicted as a maudlin barroom philosopher. And the last is Sir John Betjeman, an English poet laureate who was rumored to have been a British agent during the war. He's presented here as an effete eccentric who carries a teddy bear around with him.

Improbable Frequency is a pageant of hyperacademic, pun-filled fun. Faraday, for instance, tells a female fellow crossword buff, "We flirted for a while in a cryptic sort of way. . . . You were the one across from me, so I was not too down." And he explains his obsession with crosswords by saying, "Sorry, it's an occupational hazard, I'm afraid, / An involuntary reflex, a tic of the trade. / I hear a phrase and have to chase it down the rabbit hole, / Lips flip relentlessly beyond my control."

(Betjeman's elegant doggerel seems to have inspired Riordan's rhythmically bouncy verse. Among the poet's contributions to the war effort was this passage from "In Westminster Abbey": "Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans. / Spare their women for Thy Sake, / And if that is not too easy, / We will pardon Thy Mistake. / But, gracious Lord, whate'er shall be, / Don't let anyone bomb me.")

Director Kyle Hamman has fun with the script's caricatures and complicated casting requirements. Michael Dailey's Faraday is supported by a five-actor ensemble who tackle multiple—and sometimes overlapping—roles. Burly Scott Danielson transforms from an IRA radical to Myles na gCopaleen onstage, barely hidden by the furniture he's just helped move, and antic Jason Grimm tackles shrill English and Irish stereotypes as Betjeman and the radio announcer. Eric Paskey turns Schrödinger into a wacky mad scientist, complete with gray Einstein wig, and then tightens his sphincter to play Faraday's MI5 boss. Soprano Sarah Goeden and belter Christina Hall are the women in Faraday's life: innocent Philomena O'Shea and predatory Agent Green, respectively.

Hamman's staging lacks the sexy burlesque outrageousness that I think Riordan intended, but it moves along swiftly with the help of a comically elaborate visual design by set designer Joanna Iwanicka and lighting designer Jordan Kardasz. What really grabbed me, though, was the inventive rendition of Bell Helicopter's songs, which range in style from Irish pub ditties to thumping new-wave technorock. Musical director Mike Przygoda has crafted some of the most inventive band arrangements I've ever heard in an off-Loop theater—wonderful interplays between fiddle and flute, guitar and accordion, banjo and bass. With its witty wordplay and catchy music, Improbable Frequency is a diversion for the mind and a treat for the ears.

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