Editors' pick

Kenneth, What Is the Frequency

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Editorial Review

'Frequency' Zaps Society's Bizarre Obsessions
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2003; Page C01

It's possible that even Dan Rather might get a kick out of "Kenneth, What Is the Frequency?," the gleefully malicious poison dart that Ian Allen and Monique LaForce aim at Americans' obsessions with TV anchors, crime-scene reenactments and the endless dissecting of the inane imbroglios of the famous.

Recounted in the arched-eyebrow style of hip investigative films like Errol Morris's "The Thin Blue Line," "Kenneth, What Is the Frequency?" suggests that at heart we are a nation of armchair paranoiacs, eager to believe that in every unsolved mystery, the likeliest explanation is also the one that would be the hardest to accept.

The title's bizarre query, of course, is the phrase an assailant was said to have muttered to Rather on a Manhattan street in 1986, moments before he pummeled the CBS anchor, for reasons that have never been fully clarified. (A convict, in prison for manslaughter, was later reported to have admitted to the attack, though the playwrights claim that in a recent communication, the inmate implied he wasn't responsible.) The mystifying episode, unfairly or not, has long fed a mythology about a kooky side of one of the nation's pre-eminent news readers: the Dan Rather of the alien gaze, the hillbilly lexicon, the icky sign off. (Remember "Courage"?)

Though the newsman is rather wonderfully pilloried in this Cherry Red production by actor John Tweel, who captures both his telltale Texas twang and his oddly formal cadences, the play is only tangentially an easy-target parody. What the authors have created at Source Theatre, where the show plays at 11 on Friday and Saturday nights, is a clever, insightful mocu-drama about our idolatrous devotion to the shadows on the screen and the national conviction that their stories are more meaningful than ours.

The piece, directed by Allen and LaForce, is chockablock with nifty notions, not the least of them a hilarious series of climactic scenes enacted with puppets. Still, "Kenneth, What Is the Frequency?" is best viewed as a piece in mid-construction. The authors, clearly smitten by their own conceits, allow too many of them to unfold at extravagant length, or to be repeated too many times. With snappier pacing and an unforgiving red pencil, the show could be pared from about two hours to a sleeker and more digestible 90 minutes.

As the production also seeks to mock the melancholy slickness of a Morris documentary or the self-congratulatory tone of a film by Oliver Stone, the technical aspects must be crisp, or at any rate, much sharper than they appear to be now. And just as crucially, B. Stanley, who plays the central role of Narrator, needs to commit his lines to memory. He's got a lot of words to say, to be sure, but the sense of any pulsating urgency is lost when the omniscient presence at the core of the show has to resort to index cards.

A more disciplined production need not blot out the show's aura of cheeky whimsy. Indeed, one of the play's charms is its rock-solid belief in its own ludicrous assumptions, starting with a kind of blind faith that "What Is the Frequency?" is the "Rosebud" of our time, a national riddle that keeps us all tossing and turning night after night.

Mimicking the pulpy filmic impulse to return to the scene of the crime, "Kenneth" plays and replays that weird encounter on a sidewalk of New York. ("Where was Abraham Zapruder when we needed him?" Cherry Red's satirists seem to be asking.) The stentorian Narrator, looking a bit like Jeff Greenfield in oversize Swifty Lazar spectacles, examines the event with prosecutorial sincerity, presenting the arcane pieces of evidence with a DA's unwavering confidence that this all has to add up to something big.

The seemingly nonsensical phrase at the center of the mystery -- a question that inspired a hit song by R.E.M. -- is methodically parsed, subjected to the authors' trial-and-error of absurd alternative scenarios. In a succession of funny blackout sketches, it is suggested that a shaken Rather, mistaken for someone else, misheard his attacker. "Where's the freakin' C, Kenneth?" an addled drug addict demands of Tweel's dumbfounded Rather in one skit. In another, a gay man, confusing the anchorman with a rival for his boyfriend, blurts out, "What, is this freak seeing Kenneth?"

Over and over, the words are regurgitated, as if Rather were the hero of one of the unhappier Greek myths doomed to relive the episode throughout eternity. This being a modern fable, however, the space is outfitted with the contemporary tools of mythmaking. Tweel is often bathed in the cool blue glow of tube light; three televisions are perched on the edges of the stage, broadcasting chapter headings, a la Ken Burns, and embroidering the narrative with authenticating photographic details, nicely assembled by Rob Parrish.

Naturally, the detective yarn has to come up with its own theory of the crime, and the one Allen and LaForce settle on is outrageously spurious, a conspiracy-spinner's tour de force. It's liberally adapted from a 2001 essay in Harper's by Paul Limbert Allman. The late novelist Donald Barthelme is ridiculously implicated, the clues dizzily excavated from his prose. "What is the frequency?" and a character named Kenneth do apparently make appearances in his fiction. Stanley's Narrator could take a little more pleasure in revealing these wildly flimsy corroborations; the joy here is in our collective media cynicism, our mutual understanding that the modern mechanisms for editing and processing information allow us to reorder facts with ease, often in scandalously misleading ways.

The other performers, particularly a terrific Melissa-Leigh Douglass, impersonating several women who figure in the story, are playful pawns in this act of subversion; listen to the way they all put quotation marks around innocuous words, like "rather," in dramatizations of the suspect writer's short stories. Douglass even brings a funny brittleness to the female voices of the waggish puppets (the handiwork of Dawn Swartz and Kevin O'Meara) in scenes that bring the reams of questionable evidence to a coherent finale.

The authors of "Kenneth, What Is the Frequency?" are actually assembling the pieces to a more enduring puzzle, about the desperate lengths we go to get to the bottom of everything. Why devote so much imagination and energy to such a silly cul-de-sac in the history of celebrity affairs? Well, yes, exactly.

Kenneth, What Is the Frequency?, written and directed by Ian Allen and Monique LaForce, based on an essay by Paul Allman. Set, Kim Deane; lighting, Mike Daniels; costumes, Rhonda Key. With Kwame Wallace, Chalmers Hood, Marcus Lawrence. Approximately two hours. Through July 28 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Call 202-298-9077 or visit www.cherryredproductions.com