Although some critics at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival got a charge out of whimsical exercise in the absurd "Kenneth -- What Is the Frequency?," the entertainment value of Paul Allman's surreal comedy is drowned out by high-pitched performance static.

Although some critics at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival got a charge out of whimsical exercise in the absurd “Kenneth — What Is the Frequency?,” the entertainment value of Paul Allman’s surreal comedy is drowned out by high-pitched performance static. Expanding on a theme raised in an article he wrote in 2001 for Harper’s magazine, Allman theorizes that a mysterious 1986 attack on CBS anchorman Dan Rather (by two well-dressed assailants who taunted him with the question, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?”) was no freak event, but an example of the logic-defying laws of quantum physics. Buying into the theory, Eric Nightengale’s free-for-all production makes merry with the notion that a 1961 Texas hurricane realigned the order of natural events — and throws a lot of junk around the stage to prove its point.

One mustn’t, of course, belabor the nonsensical point of what is clearly an intellectual frolic. But before it is beaten, battered and fried to a crisp in this capricious production, Allman’s thesis appears to be that a hurricane called Carla (personified by Stephanie Dodd in a bathing suit) causes a collision between two human particles — newsman Rather and novelist-poet Donald Barthelme — when it passes through Houston.

Carla goes on her merry way, but not until she does some sneaky damage by linking these two strangers “in their own mysterious frequency.” While Rather’s journalistic coverage of the storm shoots him to fame as a news correspondent, the devastating impact of the hurricane ends Barthelme’s career as a museum administrator. Although both men follow divergent pathways to success, neither can ever be free of the other.

Allman does come up with a few arresting stage symbols for his scientific/conspiracy theories. But only the ones that apply specifically to Barthelme — especially the vision of the poet as a maniacal chef obsessed with creating the perfect squirrel stew before he dies — hit their theatrical mark.

And only Lawrence E. Bull, who plays Barthelme, works himself up to the proper state of insanity for this lunatic exercise. Despite all his frenzied efforts to find out the frequency, Rather is never more than a stiff — and a stiff stiff at that — in Toby Wherry’s perf.

Kenneth -- What Is the Frequency?

78th Street Theater Lab; 55 seats; $15

Production

A presentation by the 78th Street Theater Lab of a play in one act by Paul Allman. Directed by Eric Nightengale.

Creative

Costumes, Viviane Galloway; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Nightengale; production stage manager, Billie Davis. Opened Oct. 24, 2004; reviewed Oct. 22. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Cast

Niffleheim - Phillip Douglas Tommy - Adam Erdossy Dan Rather - Toby Wherry Donald Barthelme - Lawrence E. Bull Carla - Stephanie Dodd
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