With podcasts and Skype connections so pervasive, it's easy to be blase about acoustical wizardry. It's a refreshing change, then, to catch theater that positions its own sound designer -- figuratively and (more or less) literally -- at center stage.
That occurs in Forum Theatre and Dance's remarkable production of "Kid-Simple: A Radio Play in the Flesh" by rising young dramatist Jordan Harrison. Under the shrewd direction of Jessica Burgess, this stylish offering will startle and intrigue theatergoers who are willing to devote their full powers of sight, hearing and concentration to the occasion.
Harrison's gleefully loopy, language-drunk script is an esoteric melding of spy caper and modern fantasy -- James Bond meets "The Phantom Tollbooth" -- that centers on a child prodigy named Moll. (The target audience is adults.) Adding a meta-theatrical spin, Harrison has written an onstage part for a sound-effects maestro, the Foley Artist, who generates the story's audibles -- from heartbeats to footfalls to the sluicing din of water torture -- in view of the audience.
Coinciding with each noise, a stage-direction-like description flashes onto a screen at the back of the stage. For instance, as the Foley Artist produces (ostensibly) the sound of ripening figs -- he inflates a balloon -- the words "sound of ripening figs" pop up behind him. It's a coy gimmick but it defamiliarizes a routine element of theater -- sound -- thereby resuscitating its mystique.
In the Forum production, sound designer Scott Burgess interprets the Foley Artist with deadpan aplomb, looking rather like a Magritte figure in his bowler hat and bow tie. And the desk he stands behind, laden with gizmos (snaking wires, jutting microphones, a bulky computer terminal, miscellaneous junk), has a nerdy high-tech look (David C. Ghatan is the set designer).
That aesthetic suits the tale of Moll (Maggie Glauber), a whiz kid who lands herself on American Egghead Quarterly's Junior Overachiever List by inventing the Third Ear, a device that registers impossibly rarefied sounds (e.g., toenails growing on a field mouse). After the evil Mercenary (Jason McCool) swipes the machine, Moll searches for it in a fairy-tale wilderness, accompanied by high-school classmate Oliver (Andrew Wassenich), the magical guide, by virtue of virginity.
Periodically intersecting with Moll's scenes are excerpts from a radio play that her parents (Kevin Boggs and Fiona Blackshaw) tune in to: a pulp-fiction-style kidnapping yarn involving the Sound-Swallowing Cello.
Harrison's fanciful plot twists can verge on the cutesy, and the same goes for his indulgence in eccentric, chewy words (to prepare for her trip through the Cadaversome Chasm, Moll packs a knapsack containing laughing gas, lederhosen and load-bearing litchi nuts). At its best, though, "Kid-Simple" resembles a prose-poem written by Monty Python.
The Forum actors, too, have melded neatly with Harrison's quirky vision. Glauber makes a comically whey-faced heroine, with pigtails, awkwardly splayed fingers and bad posture. Jjana Valentiner's schoolmarmish tones lend interest to the Narrator, who comments on the action from an armchair. Their cast mates, playing multiple roles (an Amway saleslady and a satyr, for instance), help conjure an impressively oddball landscape.
They all benefit greatly from Rhonda Key's piquant costume designs, which include Norman Rockwell outfits for Moll's parents and, for Moll herself, random gear (a protractor, forceps, a faucet handle) dangling from a lab coat she wears over lime-green shorts. Lighting designer Paul Frydrychowski (also Forum's executive director) emphasizes the fantastic with a shadowy look that darkens mysteriously for the radio-play segments, and Scott Burgess repeatedly hits the bull's-eye with sounds ranging from whirs and glugs to an excerpt from the Rolling Stones' "Miss You."
Those virtues notwithstanding, the thesaurus-bred language and showily wacky plotting of "Kid-Simple" can try one's patience now and then; at 110 intermission-less minutes, it feels a little long. But for hard-core theatergoers -- especially those with a taste for the literary and the zany -- the Forum production will strike with a satisfying ping.