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Talk Radio/Machinal

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TALK RADIO

Shattered Globe Theatre

at the Project

MACHINAL

Shattered Globe Theatre

at the Project

If this review seems to lack analytical insight, it's because I forgot I was a critic Friday night. I forgot I was in a theater. I lost all sense of self. I even yelled out "Oh no!" in the middle of the play.

The last time I was so engrossed I yelled out loud I was in high school watching The Rescuers. Talk Radio is no Disney flick, but it does move like a well-oiled movie machine: all hell is about to break loose at any given moment, but somehow it all stays together. Its suspensefulness might be what inspired Oliver Stone to make a movie out of Eric Bogosian's 1985 play.

Talk Radio explores the life and death of Alan Berg, a controversial radio-talk-show host in Denver. He was murdered with a machine gun in 1984 while getting in his car after work one night. He was shot in the face, one foot on the ground, cigarette still burning between his fingers, 7-Eleven bag on the seat beside him. The neo-Nazi group called the Order claimed responsibility.

Bogosian's play isn't a biography, nor does it detail Berg's murder. It uses a fictional character just like Berg named Barry Champlain to explore the social underpinnings of racial tension--an exploration of "forces still operating today," as the program aptly puts it.

It all happens one night in the studio of WTLK in Cincinnati. Big sponsors are listening because the producers are considering taking the show national. This puts big pressure on Champlain, a hyper, quick-tongued, cigarette-smoking, Jack Daniels-drinking agitator. "The country is rotten to the core and somebody better do something about it," he says at the top of the show. Those who call to agree he insults: "The point is you don't know what you're talking about." Those who disagree he insults even more insidiously.

Champlain attracts a particularly unsavory bunch of characters that night: Kent, a high school kid who has been partying for days and who calls because his girlfriend fell asleep and "won't wake up"; a paranoid woman who can't stick her hand down the garbage disposal without flipping out; and Chet, a regular caller and a Nazi, who says he's just sent a bomb in a brown paper parcel to the studio.

The callers are one reason Talk Radio is so engrossing: They're so insipid, so ignorant, so everything-that's-wrong-with-America that it's frightening. They also seem like they could be living around the corner or standing in front of you at the grocery checkout counter.

As the show builds, you begin to think Champlain might be even more screwed up than his callers. The show's controller (Brian Pudil), assistant (Linda Reiter), and producer (Joe Forbrich) take turns telling the audience about their relationships with Champlain, and we realize the radio show is explosive because Champlain himself is about to explode.

Talk Radio is a tightly written play, superbly performed here. Director Roger Smart has assembled a first-rate cast who didn't miss a beat the whole night. It was one of those rare instances in theater when everything converges: plot, rhythm, sound, action.

And Champlain's explosiveness became representative of the whole country. As I was walking out of the theater I had the feeling that the United States is a volatile country, full of people with dry, hollow ideas. All we need is someone like Barry Champlain to come along and set it on fire.

When I told my friends (who think they know a lot about theater) that I was going to review Machinal, they moaned and whined and told me what a bad play it is.

This is the second staging of Machinal in Chicago this year, following Joseph Papp's revival of it a few years ago. It's interesting that this somewhat obscure 1928 expressionist play by New York journalist Sophie Treadwell should attract so much attention now. Whether it deserves this attention is another matter.

Machinal is not a bad play, but it is a very difficult play to do well. It's a period piece: the language is dated, and the plot seems dated too. It's about a woman who marries the vice president of the company where she works in spite of her disgust for him. She feels imprisoned in her marriage but won't divorce her husband; instead she murders him. She's found guilty and is imprisoned for life. Ironically, she makes all these constraining choices out of a somewhat vague desire to be free. The problem is that she doesn't seem to see any alternatives.

The early-20th-century genre of expressionist theater--distinguished by its use of exaggerated characterizations and external forces, such as noise--is also somewhat dated, and as such needs to be thoroughly studied and meticulously adhered to. Shattered Globe's production of Machinal, directed by Gina Kaufmann, got off to a good start, but Kaufmann's early attention to details seemed to wane, and unfortunately the show ended less interestingly than it began.

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