Begin coded transmission: A raucous, brainy spy mystery is unfolding at 111 K Street NE. Like James Bond on acid, Solas Nua’s production of Improbable Frequency mixes highbrow witticisms, bawdy physical comedy, and a whimsical, multi-cultural score to deliver a mind-bending journey into the underbelly of WWII-era Ireland.
Improbable Frequency follows the exploits of British crossword-enthusiast and newly-minted spy Tristram Faraday, as he scours the Dublin underworld for a dangerous secret that could threaten Ireland’s neutrality and upend the stability of the entire North Atlantic. Faraday uses his skills as an adept “cruciverbalist” to crack a sophisticated code and uncover the truth, all the while navigating a minefield of Nazi sympathizers, Irish militants, rival spies, and mad scientists.
Arthur Riordan’s script throws the audience into a twisting labyrinth of verbal games, political and historical satire, and deliberately awful puns, all wrapped in a carefully constructed rhyming scheme. Meanwhile, Bell Helicopter’s score comprises a dizzying pastiche of music from around the world, including Irish pub songs, German cabaret, Spanish bolero, American boogie, and even Argentine Tango.
Matt Torney and his design team have created an inspired vision for Riordan’s work. Located on an unfinished floor of a brand new office building, the small theater is set up as an underground cabaret, replete with bar, tables, and the low glow of candles. Torney frequently sends his actors out to stroll casually through the audience, further blurring the line between proper musical and live bar concert. Scenic designer Richard Montgomery utilizes a simple bar set, wall flats with crude graffiti and artwork, and the building’s own exposed ductwork and concrete columns to create a seedy, forbidden atmosphere that suits the material perfectly.
The cast does a commendable job translating the difficult material to the stage. Eric Messner, who gives an electrifying turn as Faraday, delivers each line and verse with superb timing and unyielding intensity. His verbal precision and obsessive, driven nature keep the play moving along, even when the action bogs down in overly-long musical numbers or gags. Stacey Jackson excels as ingenue Philomena O’Shea, the main object of Faraday’s affections, delivering a beautiful vocal performance with her bell-clear voice. Madeleine Carr impresses as the brassy, dangerous Agent Green, sashaying around the stage with brash confidence and belting her way through some of the more difficult songs in the show.
Chris Davenport and John Tweel are the show’s workhorses, tasked with playing a total of five unique characters between them. The two provide vital foils for the unlikely hero Faraday, displaying veteran character acting skills honed through years in the theater. As potbellied dandy Agent Betjeman and likeable Irish barfly Myles na gcopaleen, Davenport and Tweel flash their comedic chops and lay claim to the funniest moments in the show.
The production is not without its rough edges. Riordan’s lyrics are often so jam packed with detailed plot information and complex puns that the actors are forced to abandon the melody and speak the more complicated lines, as the chorus provides background harmony. While initially a welcome deviation from the norm, the lack of lyricism sometimes became wearying, feeling more and more like a missed opportunity. Another side effect of this overly ambitious writing is that it is very easy to get totally lost during any given song. Additionally, aside from Jackson and Carr’s strong individual vocals, the singing is hit and miss. Whether the culprit is the shoehorning of elaborate verbal gymnastics into the score or simply early-run jitters, several of the group numbers need cleaning up. However, the dancing, led by graceful Dance Captain Ryan Patrick Welsh, is enjoyable and generally tight.
Improbable Frequency is a truly unique tale of wartime espionage that will surprise and delight with its ingenuity and frantic comedy. While on the surface it might seem like a family friendly show, it quickly reveals itself to be a very mature production indeed (to say nothing of the burlesque-inspired intermission). Despite the shortcomings, there’s a lot to smile about here, particularly for fans of cloak and dagger stories, B-grade sci-fi, and Monty Python.
One last thing: This review will self-destruct in 5 seconds.
Book and Lyrics by Arthur Riordan
Music by Bell Helicopter
Directed by Matt Torney
Produced by Solas Nua
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Improbable Frequency plays thru Oct 24, 2010 at 111 K Street NE, Washington, DC.
Click here for details, and tickets.