If there’s one thing I’d like to say about Swandive Theatre’s production of Kid Simple: A Radio Play in the Flesh is that this show is my jam. It’s relatively rare for me to see a show where I wish I’d created it, been in it, and worked in the development of it all at once. But for Kid Simple, this was how I felt and then some.
You should know that I love radio plays. Last winter, I got to see Shades Brigade, a locally produced live radio play at Bryant Lake Bowl (if you were at the Iveys last year, you might remember seeing an excerpt from one of their shows). The way sound effects, melodrama, and humor work in these pieces is something that I aesthetically and creatively love. So to see a full-fledged 90 minute production that incorporates this into homage to sound design was a dream.
Here’s the premise: the Narrator (described as “a mellifluous voice” and played by Debra Berger) describes how the brilliant inventor Moll (Boo Segersin) listens to a weekly radio drama called “Death and the Music Teacher” with her parents (Sarah Broude and Kevin McLaughlin, who also provide the voices of the characters in the radio drama). In her spare time, Moll invents things, putting her focus into a grand science fair project of a machine that produces sounds that cannot be heard. Including a bit of herself – her stirrup, one of the tiny bones in her ear – into the machine, called the Third Ear (Derek Trost), she gives the machine life and allows listeners to hear sounds that objects collect as people pass by them. However, her machine grows attention from sinister figures, including one known as the Mercenary (Kip Dooley), who wants to steal the Third Ear. A master of disguise, the Mercenary takes on the persona of a boy known as Garth to seduce Moll and steal her machine. Vowing revenge for her broken heart and to save the Third Ear from falling into evil hands, Moll recruits the virgin Oliver (Nathan Gebhard) to be her guide through the wilderness to find the Third Ear.
Playing with themes of Apollonian versus Dionysian creativity (organized methodology vs. artistic mess), the tension between love and lust, how we perceive and interact with sound, how we connect with our world, and what it takes to create something and change the world, there’s a lot going on in this 9o minute show. Presented as a radio play, Kid Simple experiments with storytelling and how we follow the events of a show, interrupting the main story to introduce excerpts of “Death and the Music Teacher,” the radio play with in the play that eventually crosses over into Moll’s story line. As events unfold, words begin to be replaced by sounds as the Third Ear is used more and more, distorting usual ways of hearing and communicating. The narrator breaks the fourth wall, coming out into the audience to find her importance and to discern how she should continue to vocalize this story.
Overall, this play is a dynamic devotion to sound. Influenced by the 2014 decision of the Tony’s governing body to remove Sound Design as an award category, Swandive’s production effectively proves why this was a poor choice. The artistry, technicality, and beauty of sound design is abundantly clear, putting heavy emphasis on precision and timing. The Third Ear, a steampunky machine of found objects that is run by Derek Trost (who is also the sound designer), includes musical instruments such as a harp, a cymbal, a zither, a metronome that plays at the top of the show, ticking away like a clock to the beginning of the play, and other handheld objects used to produce sound effects (ala radio show). The effects blend with other sounds produced by the sound board as well as some superb voice acting by the cast. Visual projections not only add to the set design but also describe some of the sounds being heard as well as describing sounds that are never heard, allowing the audience to imagine the sounds themselves. Found sound of audio clips and recordings as well as musical excerpts are also included, involving every kind of sound design that you could expect to find in a show.
This show is so satisfying for the ears. Using beautiful, clever dialogue, carefully planned words, and even invented words (“spookening” and “fuckiteer of the forest” happen to be my favorite) speech also becomes a part of the soundscape. There are moments where the show almost feels overwhelming with sound but in its exploration and creation, it becomes magical and incredible, playing off of the mythological and fairy tale feel of the play. I don’t think I’ve left a play feeling my ears tingling by how much I listened, but in this show I certainly did. Even visually the show works to reference sound – lights aid in the description of certain noises and effects and the set includes panels with newsprint and spiraling pieces hanging from the ceiling reminiscent of sound waves.
There’s so much for me to love about this – the story of a female inventor, the homage to sound, all the theatrical risks it takes without ever for a moment being snobby or trying too hard to be clever. This is one of the best works I’ve seen all year and it does exactly what I want theater to do – to engage the audience, to challenge what they’re used to seeing, and to tell a smart, heartfelt story that’s beautiful, striking, smooth, and messy all at once. It’s so inspiring as an artist to see this sort of storytelling and I’m grateful to Swandive for producing it. I’m adding this to my list of dream shows to work on and this is a production you absolutely cannot miss.
Kid Simple written by Jordan Harrison and directed Meg DiSciorio and Damon Runnals. It is playing in rep at the Southern Theater through May 22nd. For show information and ticket prices, check out Swandive’s website or the Southern’s website.