Radiotheatre in King Kong
nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
May 31, 2007
In the program for Radiotheatre in King Kong, currently playing at the Red Room, it states "Radiotheatre does NOT produce authentic re-creations of old-time radio shows..." Well. OK. Radiotheatre in King Kong is not precisely a recreation of an old-time radio show. But the actors stand at microphones and tell the story, this one based on the Merian C. Cooper novel of King Kong. There is music, sounds of crashing walls, live screams, and lots of looking up at the ceiling with bug-eyed fear. No one shows up in a gorilla suit, thankfully. But in spirit, intent and execution, it's five parts radio to one part theatre.
The star of the evening is adaptor/director/founder Dan Bianchi's sound design; 75 minutes of scary music, jungle sounds, tom toms and roaring dinosaurs. (The interesting story here is the story of computer technology in the last ten years and its impact on the performing arts. Things that would have been previously impossible are now not only possible, but affordable.) Bianchi's sound design is dense, multi-layered, and evocative, and apparently run by one intrepid engineer onstage with a laptop. Jungle birds, street sounds, falling trees, screaming crowds in Radio City Music Hall—it's all here in a rich, hyper-charged, aural landscape.
The story is the familiar one of King Kong, here taken from the pulp adventure novel rather than the classic or recent Hollywood versions. A film producer sails to an uncharted island with a crew and encounters the natives, preparing a young girl to be the "Bride of Kong." Eventually, they encounter Kong, who's—well—an enormous ape with something to prove. Lots of people die. There are dinosaurs, big spiders and thrilling escapes. They capture Kong, return him to New York, and display him at Radio City Music Hall where he escapes and goes on a rampage. While searching for the beautiful blonde he's fallen in love with, he climbs the Empire State Building where he's eventually shot down by airplanes. How his gigantic corpse is then cleared from midtown Manhattan is never fully explained.
The actors play at a brisk, breathless pace and two are quite good. Karyn Plonsky as Ann Darrow, the Fay Wray role, is pretty, blonde, full of heart, and cuts loose with a rocking B-movie scream right on cue. Mark Vance is Jack Driscoll, the manly crewman who falls in love with Ann and saves her from certain death on Skull Island. It's a one-note role, but Vance is believable and appealing. Bianchi as director clearly wants the material done straight—no camping, no parody, no cutting up, no commenting on the melodrama. The actors commit wholeheartedly to every "My God! Kong is loose!" moment they're given.
But the evening did not work for me. Once I was done marveling at the sound design, there wasn't a lot there to engage. The story of King Kong is familiar to anyone born in the 20th century. It's a pulpy, melodramatic yarn that lends itself to movies steeped in visual effects. The characters are stock types. If there are layers to the story, they are layers that work visually. There's little about the material that's symbolic or theatrical. Lord Jim, it ain't. Bianchi has stripped the story to its essentials, but the essentials don't compel.
The artistic decision to shun parody is legitimate. But then what is the impulse—the need—for a straight up, non-cinematic version of King Kong? Why tell this story now? Bianchi's Radiotheatre is an interesting concept. It would be worthwhile to hear what they've done with stories that had more potential to engage on a theatrical level.