The Blue Menace

Local Arts Reviews

The Blue Menace

Ventana del Soul, through June 5

Running time: 1 hr, 15 min

The greatest special effects ever came from radio drama. I'm not just talking about the glorious sound effects, although it's mighty hard to beat those ingenious evocations of natural (and unnatural) sounds worked up by Foley artists at tables loaded with an oddball array of props. I also mean the spectacular visual effects created simply by the words in the script and the way they were delivered by the actors speaking into the microphone. With no strict visual representation to rein in the audience's imagination, as in theatre or the movies, the mind was the limit. One could imagine settings more lavish, action more daring, horrors more gruesome than Hollywood or Broadway at their most opulent could deliver.

That lesson hit home again last week after listening to the latest program from the Violet Crown Radio Players, a community theatre company now in its third season. In the first half of the "broadcast," a performance of the actual 1945 radio drama Rocket From Manhattan, astronauts on their way back from the moon witness a series of catastrophic explosions on Earth. The intelligent if moralistic script by Arch Oboler – something of the Rod Serling of radio – offered just enough of a description of the devastation to set the mind going, and when that was coupled with the shock conveyed by actors Kristin Freeman, T.E. Heidel, and Ryan Hill, it encouraged one to summon up genuinely unsettling visions of an apocalypse. In this time of war and anxiety over terrorist attacks, Oboler's doomsday tale delivered a sobering punch not too different, I expect, from the one it served up when it originally aired.

In a considerably lighter vein was the show's second half, an adventure of the Blue Menace, a sapphire-masked knockoff of the Shadow by way of Indiana Jones. (He has mystical mental powers, and his alter ego is an archaeology professor, see?) The creation of Austin writer Mark Finn, the Blue Menace is a loving tribute to those mysterious crimefighters of the Thirties and the extravagant evils they faced. In this episode, titled "Death by Raven," it's blackbirds gone wild. Finn, who penned the script and directs it from a chair downstage center, has ravens peck to death various colleagues of our hero at the behest of a seriously ticked-off Celtic goddess. With just a few caws from cast members and slapping gloves to suggest flapping wings, I was able to conjure a truly macabre murder scene – which was, as odd as it may sound, great fun.

The pleasures afforded by Violet Crown go beyond its stimulus of the imagination, though. Finn has a strong sense of radio drama's rhythms and a finely tuned ear for that era's slang and snappy patter, which his actors – none of them old enough to have experienced radio drama in its heyday – deliver with surprising skill. Cathy Day, as sardonic gal Friday Charlotte, is a real peach in this regard, and as our true-blue hero, Heidel holds his own. The vintage dress worn by the cast, the retro tunes provided by the Puddin' Hill Jass Babies, and "a few words from our sponsors" all add to the show's nostalgic delights and make this an appealing return to yesteryear.

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The Blue Menace, Violet Crown Radio Players, Rocket From Manhattan, Arch Oboler, Kristin Freeman, T. E. Heidel, Ryan Hill Mark Finn, Blue Menace, Death by Raven, Cathy Day, T. E. Heidel, Puddin' Hill Jass Babies

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