Music by Bell Helicopter
Directed by Kyle Hamman
Starring Michael Dailey, Scott Danielson, Sarah Goeden, Jason Grimm, Christina Hall, and Eric Paskey
Produced by Strawdog Theater Company
This absurdist twist on the spy thriller has plenty of verbal chills—but it may not be for everyone.
Improbable Frequency—a musical mystery by Arthur Riordan and the Irish band Bell Helicopter—has made its Midwest premiere this month at Strawdog Theater. Originally developed by Dublin’s Rough Magic Theater Company, it migrated originally to the U.S. in 2008 with a lively Off-Broadway production at 59E59 Theaters. Billed as an evening of “love, crosswords, spies, wit and bad puns,” Improbable Frequency has certain irrefutable charms, but I’m nonetheless hesitant to recommend it outright. For much like the crossword puzzles featured so prominently in its script, the pleasures of Improbable Frequency rarely penetrate any deeper than (an albeit nimble and unremitting) word play. Those who enjoy that leisurely hour every Sunday morning spent cracking the meaning of “14 across” or those eager to take on all their friends in a rousing game of Scrabble will have little complaints with Improbable Frequency—others, however, might be more incredulous.
Improbable Frequency is set during WWII—or “The Emergency” as it was then known to neutral Ireland—and recounts the adventures of Tristram Faraday (Mike Dailey)—a British code breaker, spy, and cruciverbalist (meaning one who compiles crossword puzzles). Being dispatched to Dublin in 1941 to investigate a series of implausibly portentous radio broadcasts, Faraday there encounters a colorful cast of IRA revolutionaries, mad scientists, and double agents. Infiltrating their nefarious ranks, Faraday comes face to face with an insidious scheme to…well, best not get into that now. Let’s just say that Improbable Frequency carries on in the absurdist vein (think James Bond meets early Tom Stoppard), humorously stretching the limits of plausibility as far as they can go.
Still, by the second act, the plot starts to trip over its own convolutions, compounding them one after another in a kind of fanciful free fall. And even this remarkably talented cast is not always able to help us suffer through the mire. There are no mics onstage, and even in Strawdog’s intimate storefront venue, actors are often hard-pressed to be heard over the four-piece orchestra. Were this standard musical fare, it would hardly be a problem, but for a play which hinges on rapid-fire word games and whose major plots points are frequently embedded in somewhat intricate language, losing even one syllable runs the risk of losing your audience.
Strawdog company member Michael Dailey takes the lead as Tristam Faraday. Not much of a singer, Dailey’s quiet voice sometimes gets lost amid the orchestrations. Still, he nails Faraday’s piquant idiosyncrasies even as he serves to anchor this madcap production in something a little more grounded. Jason Grimm—as both John Betjeman and Meehawl O’Dromedary—exhibits pitch-perfect comedic timing, bounding hither and thither across the stage with almost frenetic energy. Truth be told, Grimm’s performance alone might be worth the price of admission. Not that the other cast members are found wanting. Improbably Frequency benefits immensely from this troupe of prodigiously talented character-actors, all of whom demonstrate incredible comic versatility. And Kyle Hamman’s direction succeeds in giving this productionits due zaniness while at the same time letting its verbal acrobatics come to the fore.
To be sure, there is an audience for this kind of thing, even if it consists of a rather distinctive niche. If a copious amount of punning easily gets under your skin or if absurdity too readily tries your patience, you might want to sit this one out. But for those who enjoy the bravado of linguistic fireworks, you would do well to give it a try.
Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Monday, February 25th, 2013.
Running time is 2 hours 10 minutes with one intermission.
Improbable Frequency runs until March 31st, 2013. Strawdog Theater is located at 3829 N. Broadway St. Tickets can be obtained through their box office at (773) 528-9889 or at their website (www.strawdog.org). Check out their listing at Theater in Chicago: https://www.theatreinchicago.com/improbable-frequency/6124/.