A parody of a 1940s radio play would be as relevant to audiences today as, well, a 1940s radio play itself. But while it is inspired by a medium that is virtually extinct, Reggie Watts and playwright Tommy Smith’s Radio Play, currently running at PS 122 in New York City, is more accurately a lively, non-linear deconstruction of everything that radio listeners might be exposed to as they search the AM/FM airwaves. With scripted and musical transitions – at the same time more immersive and yet more subtle than the static between stations – that transport the audience between vignettes, an absurd take on a noir radio drama can become a silly domestic comedy scene, a riff on radio commercial jingles morphs into an abstract soundscape, and spooky sound effects and technical tricks contribute to an hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness theatrical experience that is greater than the sum of its vintage parts.
Performing Radio Play mostly in complete darkness, Watts is the ringmaster, accompanied on stage by four other performers (actors Havilah Brewster, Beth Hoyt, and Mary Jane Gibson, with Jen Rondeau playing the theremin) who are surrounded by antiquated equipment such as old cassette players and television sets, mid-century appliances, and a lonely film projector spinning its empty reel. Improvised moments sneak into the structured piece, throughout which the audience is immersed in Watts’ unique vision that is meant to be heard and felt more than seen, with blackness punctuated only occasionally by well-placed and impeccably timed lighting cues.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, Watts called Radio Play “a fragmented psychology” and said, “It should feel like a day dream, like a journey through ideas.” WSJ writer Lizzie Simon aptly decides while observing rehearsals of Radio Play, “The show is funny and not funny and, as is common in Mr. Watts’ work, it is not always clear whether something is funny or not funny or what it is at all.”
That description could be applied to almost any Reggie Watts performance. His solo shows are as wild and ranging as his prodigious afro. Since moving to New York City from Seattle in 2005, the musician-comedian has built a following in the ever-expanding “alt comedy” scene with his mostly improvised and at times chaotic blend of comedy, music, loop-machine effects, and theatrics. Watts is not just a stand-up comic or singer-songwriter, not a beat-boxer or a DJ or a character actor. He is all of these things at once, and even though that might make him hard to define in genre terms, his one-of-a-kind style is spoken of with hushed reverence by fans whose numbers are rapidly growing.
Watts is also one of the few acts who truly has to be seen live and in person to be believed. His songs generally start with a backing rhythm or beat box effect; as he records his carefully controlled vocals live on stage and begins to play back each aural element with a loop machine, he’ll add additional sounds, lyrics, and effects to create complex, layered a cappella tracks that also incorporate his unique comic perspective. Nearly all of Watts’ shows are completely improvised, and his ability to develop and sustain a bit on the spot is better understood and appreciated with the immediacy of theater than on screen. But contrasted with the free-form audio journeys that his solo shows often take, rehearsing and perfecting a scripted project like Radio Play is “good for me,” Watts told WSJ. “I can actually be part of a structure but still have my moments of improvisation.”
Watts has traveled around the world as a solo performer, including spots at festivals such as SXSW, Bonnaroo, the Montreal Comedy Festival, the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, and more. He has appeared on TV as a guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Conan, and was the opening act for Conan O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.” And he’s just as likely to perform a 10-minute set at a bar in Brooklyn as he is to appear on stage at Madison Square Garden (where he showed up to contribute to LCD Soundsystem’s recent final farewell show).
He has also written and performed music with Regina Spektor, and he created the theme songs for comedian Louis CK’s FX show Louie, Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Death Ray Radio and Comedy Bang Bang, and Kristen Schaal’s Penelope Princess of Pets. He was the winner of the 2006 Andy Kaufman Comedy Award and the 2009 ECNY Award for Best Musical Comedy Act, among others. Watts released a CD/DVD, Why Shit So Crazy?, last year on Comedy Central Records.
(Warning: Video contains language NSFW)
Watts became interested in alternative performance styles when he was living and playing music in Seattle, where he also met and started collaborating with playwright Tommy Smith. Radio Play is the fourth multimedia experimental theater piece that Watts has co-created with Smith since 2007, a collaboration that previously produced Transition, Disinformation, and Dutch A/V.
“To me it’s the ultimate art form,” Watts told WSJ, discussing his love of live theater over even music and comedy. “It incorporates every single medium you can imagine. You feel people in the room, and it’s completely human-powered.”
Radio Play has just been extended through May 28, 2011 at Performance Space 122, 150 First Ave. (at 9th St.), NYC. Performances run Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 6 p.m., with late performances at 10 p.m. on May 14, 21, 27 & 28. For more info and to purchase tickets, visit www.ps122.org.
This story was posted online May 13, 2011 at Blog Stage.