Shock Not Schlock in ‘Talk Radio’ at the Ex

What the Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s staging of “Talk Radio” lacks in space, it makes up for in startling intensity. When the audience first take their seats to watch playwright Eric Bogosian’s play in the Loeb Ex, it’s as if they have wandered backstage. The seating area, which is enclosed by dark walls, fits only a few dozen audience members. This intimate relationship between audience and cast is required for a full appreciation of the searing, in-your-face nature of this production. The grating, unhinged voices of late night radio callers slam around in the small space, finding their match in the violent energy of their host, Barry Champlain (Phil M. Gillen ’13). The talented and electric cast of “Talk Radio” is well complimented by the play’s inspired technical elements—especially sound and set design—and together they bolster an engaging and moving portrait of an impossible man.

“Talk Radio” follows one night of the late-hour radio program, “Night Talk with Barry Champlain,” in which Champlain mercilessly eviscerates an aural parade of psychos, sad sacks, and anti-Semites who call in with their problems. Champlain’s three-person team, Stu Noonan (Peter K. Bestoso ’14), Linda MacArthur (Vanessa B. Koo ’12), and Dan Woodruff (Matthew J. Bialo ’15), alternates between indulging Champlain’s vicious tempers, and confessing its own histories with Champlain to the audience. As the night progresses, Champlain’s show boils over into a shouting contest between his own invisible demons, and the audience sees Champlain as he truly is.

Champlain has all of the answers to the world’s most desperate and inane questions, which makes him a faceless deity for morally disenfranchised and paranoid late-night-radio listeners. Director Caleb J. Thompson ’14, a Crimson arts staff writer, and set designer Madie A. Hays ’13 have created an atmosphere that plays up Champlain’s animalistic passions and depressions by presenting him as a kind of caged beast. Champlain is physically compressed within the small stage, and confined even more by his looming metal desk and radio equipment. Within this claustrophobic space, Gillen does a truly impressive job revealing Champlain’s bitterly disjointed moods. At times, he bellows and storms around the studio, electrifying the air with a seemingly limitless surge of caustic disgust aimed at his friends, his listeners, and himself. However, Thompson anchors him at his desk for his most terrifying and dangerous speeches. It is in these still moments that Gillen shines most brightly: his voice alone boils with rage and fear while his body stays frozen and tense behind his desk.

Champlain is at once a trembling fraud and a manic egoist, and as he vacillates between the two, those closest to him must either walk away from him for good or commit to the brutal ride. Noonan, Champlain’s longtime friend, and MacArthur, his occasional lover, are both strong foils for Gillen’s Champlain. Bestoso walks with a perpetual slouch and plays with his hair as he describes Champlain in his monologues. Koo takes a more guarded approach, leaning back against a desk and curling her arms around herself, mirroring Champlain’s embraces as she describes them to the audience.

The show moves forward with unrelenting speed, thanks to the constant flow of late-night callers, hilariously and at times chillingly voiced by Nathan O. Hilgartner ’14, Lily R. Glimcher ’14, Rob A. Knoll ’13, and Taylor K. Phillips ’14. One caller, a bright-eyed, drugged-up kid named Kent (Jacob A. Brandt ’14) calls in several times, spinning lies about his fictional girlfriend’s drug overdose to get Champlain’s attention. When Kent actually comes to the station to meet his idol, Brandt steals the show. He is constantly in motion, rocking back in his folding chair, flapping his hands in Champlain’s face, and speaking a mile a minute while somehow maintaining his drugged-up slur. The pair play off each hilariously: after one of Brandt’s lengthy, disconnected discourses on America, Gillen tries to level him with his standard tone of jaded relish. “Kent, you’re an idiot,” he says, practically levitating. Brandt answers with obvious delight: “Man, you’re the best!”

However, not even the effervescent presence of Brandt can lighten the mood of the play, which ultimately aims to pull the audience deep into the mind of the troubled, and troubling, Barry Champlain. “Talk Radio” is complicated work carried beautifully by an incredible cast and crew. Thompson brings a lively, electrifying show to the audience, making us wonder long after the conclusion at the fact that a man like Champlain can exist, even in art.

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