Phhhht! Unhhhhgh! Giiiiee!

Leggo my oracular noise-amplifying magic machine!
Emigrant Theater

The sound of one hand clapping, the pregnant pause, the sound of silence: One presumes that Jordan Harrison has pondered such things, given that he's crafted a play in which a soundless cello figures so prominently.

The regional premiere of Harrison's Kid Simple is a frequently sunny and happily deranged foray into abstraction and high-style silliness. The plot centers on Moll (Ariel Dumas), a brilliant if high-strung teenager who channels her adolescent energy into crafting inventions. Dumas, in overalls and clunky boots, plays Moll as a cheerful tomboy with an obsessive undertow that emerges when she falls for lugnut Garth (Jerome Yorke). Garth seems to want Moll for her body but, alas, is more interested in her mind.

Moll has swept top prize at her high-school science fair by inventing the Third Ear, a device that picks up normally unheard sounds (it seems like, basically, a highly effective boom microphone, but here it's convincingly invested with metaphoric significance). In the process she attracts the attention of shadowy conspirators, who employ superspy and shape-shifter Garth to snatch the device. Apparently the Third Ear has the capacity to reveal the oracular texture of things hidden (bear with me, now), as well as an ability to do cool things like discern when someone is lying. (Attention Ron Popeil...or maybe this one belongs in the Kevin Trudeau product line.)

Once this syndicate steals the Third Ear, Moll launches a hell-bent campaign to retrieve it, and to extract elaborate revenge from her erstwhile lover. One can hardly blame her. Interspersed with this postmodern Death Wish scenario is a radio play called "Death and the Music Teacher," read to terrific effect by John Middleton and Karla Reck, that parallels the action. Middleton and Reck also portray Moll's parents, the unseen conspirators, a AAA guidebook, and an Amway saleslady. At times these two anchor the performance; at other times, they go with the comedic flow.

The cohesion of the cast (under Sarah Gioia's direction) enhances the inherent humor in this quicksilver comedy. Playwright Harrison indulges in absurd asides, Joycean made-up words ("dangerous-est," "spookening,"), and projections that describe auditory cues ("Sound of a throat cleared with majesty"). To this end, Harrison has created characters called the Narrator (Sally Ann Wright) and the Foley Artist (Mike Hallenbeck). The latter provides the sort of sound effects that were the bread and butter of silent movies and old radio broadcasts: ominous footsteps and clanking hardware. He is also called upon to play the Stones' "Miss You" on pan pipes when a satyr attempts to seduce quest compatriot and high-school virgin Oliver (Joe Swanson) in order to thwart Moll's revenge. (The logic, by this point, is heavily internal to the piece.)

Wright's Narrator suffers a good deal of abuse for trying to frame events in conventional terms, what with all the sonic insubordination coming from Hallenbeck's side of the stage. And she eventually stands and angrily tries to assert the primacy of words and their power to impose meaning. In response, Hallenbeck's Foley arsenal replaces random words in the script with vaudevillian farts and squeaks. (An audience steadfastly dedicated to conventional drama could find this work as grating as it is challenging.) We're pretty much in the shadowlands, where the very function of words to define the world bumps up against the pull of the abstract, the distinct versus the infinite, indeed (as the script posits), the Apollonian versus the Dionysian.

Ultimately, everything here passes through the opaque prism of Moll's gray matter, through her obsessions and her high-stakes gambit of ripping out parts of herself and incorporating them into her inventions. By the end Moll is all alone in her mind, the machinery of her intellect chugging away, apocalypse put behind us and the untamable rush of the senses asserting itself (as it always does). One comes away with the sense that Harrison takes all of reality, as exceptional artists do, and sets it on fire to find out what it smells (or sounds) like when it burns. Here, a group of incendiary players have fanned the flames to good effect.

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