Review: ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ is truly radio worth watching
Story by Emerald staff writer Rachel Benner
The tagline for local theatre company Radio Redux, “Radio worth watching!” may sound like a contradiction, but in the Hult Center on Sunday afternoon, it was a reality.
Actors sat on the stage in chairs behind a row of old-fashioned microphones, dressed in 1940s attire and holding scripts. Beside them, two people created sound effects with objects ranging from a plastic water bottle to China plates. This is Radio Redux, a unique theatrical troupe that produces “radio theater” or “theater of the mind:” recreations of vintage radio broadcasts on a contemporary stage.
This past weekend, under the direction of Fred Crafts, Radio Redux presented the dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, its first production in downtown Eugene’s Hult Center after almost 10 years in the Springfield area.
Arsenic and Old Lace follows drama critic Mortimer Brewster and his sweet-yet-homicidal aunts who pity lonely old men. . .and have taken a liking to poisoning them. Mortimer must navigate around a disgruntled fiancée, a murderous, long-lost brother and other eccentric family members as he attempts to cover up the murders and keep his dangerously charitable aunts out of prison.
In his Radio Redux debut, actor Bill Hulings played the frazzled Mortimer. Hulings is talented, but his portrayal lacked the high energy needed to keep the plot moving forward; he seemed unfazed by the wild events taking place and any extreme emotion felt forced. The commitment and energy from the rest of the cast, however, was more than enough to save the show. Nancy Hopps and Judi Weinkauf were flawless as Abby and Martha, the dotty, murderous aunts. With their quaint body language and hilarious delivery, they made murder seem almost adorable. The sound effects team was a standout as well, as they added an interesting visual layer to the scenes as they slammed doors and crumpled paper to create surprisingly realistic sounds.
Without scene changes, props or blocking, the pace of the radio broadcast play was fast and exciting. The unusual format also included voiceover announcements during intermission and even vintage mock commercials for Jell-O and dated beauty techniques, all part of the company’s vision to stylistically recreate “the glorious days of yesteryear.”
It was obvious that nostalgia is a big part of this show’s appeal, and that of Radio Redux as a whole. The target demographic is definitely a few generations ahead of the University of Oregon student body, as evidenced by the audience. Nonetheless, Radio Redux pulls off a seemingly impossible task. It transcends time with the antiquated theatrical form and fashions a production with something for everyone. For an older crowd, Radio Redux is nostalgia, but for us, it’s a novelty. The 1940s references may be a bit dated and over some of our heads, but the fast pace and committed cast have a universal appeal.
Arsenic and Old Lace wasn’t showy or visually appealing, but it was very different and a lot of fun. The script itself is a classic: witty, a little disturbing and perfectly suited to the unique concept and setting.
In its program, Radio Redux rightfully mentions that it is “preserving an important piece of our history” with its productions. At the same time, though, they’re pushing the boundaries of live theatre and creating something new. They’re simultaneously innovating and preserving, and that’s a theatre contradiction that I would pay to see.
Radio Redux will present the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” at 7:30 p.m. on Decemeber 5 and 2 p.m. on December 7 in the Soreng Theater at the Hult Center. Visit www.radioreduxusa.com for more information.
Correction: A previous version of this story credited the aunts as Nancy Hopps and Diana Aday. It has since been changed.
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