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Solas Nua's first musical, the loopy 'Improbable Frequency'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2010; C03

A daft draft is wafting these days through an otherwise unremarkable floor of a new office building on K Street NE, where the surprising Irish-centric theater company Solas Nua has chosen to stage its first musical: an extravagantly loopy exercise called "Improbable Frequency."

The folks at Solas Nua are clearly in a mood to stretch, having diverged here from their signature fare: compact Irish dramas of gritty lyricism. For this occasion they've converted an unfinished floor of a high-rise into a wartime cabaret. There plays out the sometimes amusing, sometimes overblown tale of a British code-breaker dispatched to Dublin to figure out whether subversives in neutral Ireland are in cahoots with the Germans.

The company gets high marks for undertaking tricky material. "Improbable Frequency" is a wobbly piece of theater from Dublin that requires an exceptional degree of proficiency. It's a show that revels in an iconoclastic mixing of cerebral wit and bad puns. It relies, too, on an insouciant spirit to cover up the lapses in the storytelling and the unevenness in the songs.

Only occasionally, though, does director Matt Torney achieve the full-throttle giddiness that the plot's far-fetched mechanics demand. The cast certainly gives it the old college try -- which is fitting, since the evening can leave the impression that you're back in college. A major problem is the actors' vocal difficulties, sometimes with the accents and more often with the evening's nearly three dozen songs. Out of a cast of nine, only two actors, Stacey Jackson, playing a chirpy ingenue, and Cyle Durkee, as a mad German scientist, seem entirely comfortable with their musical assignments.

The raw space that Solas Nua has found for "Improbable Frequency" is, however, a fine match for the rawness of the proceedings. Up the elevator you go to the building's sixth floor, where you are escorted (after correctly repeating a password) to one of the makeshift lounge's tables. A four-piece band conducted by Amy Conley is positioned to one side. Richard Montgomery's set is adorably basic: a red curtain parts to reveal a pub with a simple counter and painted-on mirror.

The plot could hardly be more adorned, as it entails both the tangled World War II espionage and the complicated ins and outs of Anglo-Irish relations. The premise of "Improbable Frequency" is at once esoteric and rife with gleeful possibility: that the Irish and the British are forever locked in mutual suspicion that makes their every encounter a treacherous mind game.

Within this framework, book writer Arthur Riordan and the composers, the Irish musical group Bell Helicopter, unspool the tale of Tristram Faraday (Eric Messner). He's a goofy English whiz at crossword puzzles who's sent to Dublin by his British masters to learn whether secret messages being broadcast over Irish radio -- hence the musical's title -- are somehow hurting the war effort. As it turns out, the effect the airwaves are having is not the result of mystical Gaelic spells but of a Teutonic evil genius who's built some sort of nonsense doomsday machine.

The more formidable force Tristram confronts, however, is the seething island itself, where the inhabitants freely indulge their grievances as well as their well-honed sense of irony. Centuries of bad treatment by their neighbors across the Irish Sea have left the locals unsympathetic to the British cause. "Although we're not Nazis/We're not bleeding patsies," goes one of the lyrics.

The theme is not inaccessible for Americans. It's just that at times, the musical adopts so many styles that it never develops one wholly its own. Why, for instance, Riordan has his characters speak in rhyme is never satisfactorily revealed. And the score is a hodgepodge of dreamy ballads, folk and patriotic song parodies and dense bits of sprechstimme, or speak-singing. One wishes for a more cohesive blueprint, along the lines of the tongue-in-cheek mayhem of a show it sometimes evokes, "Urinetown."

Choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning has come up with some nifty dance steps; the cast will doubtless grow more comfortable with them. If a struggle still shows in the mastery of the production's sometimes improbable mandates, there are times it all pays off, as in a scene, late in the evening, when Tristram and Durkee's mad German have a funny showdown over the ether-shaking machine. It would be a service if the device could also work some magic on the flaws in the musical itself.

Improbable Frequency

Book by Arthur Riordan, score by Bell Helicopter. Directed by Matt Torney. Choreography, Diane Coburn Bruning; musical direction, Amy Conley; set, Richard Montgomery; costumes, Lynly Saunders; sound, James Garver; lighting, Marianne Meadows. With Madeleine Carr, Chris Davenport, John Tweel. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Oct. 24 at 111 K St. NE. Visit http://www.solasnua.org.

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