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TALK RADIO: Upstart Productions Got 'Tude

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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to H4 11/4/09

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Tough to find a DVD of Oliver Stone's 1988 screen adaptation of Eric Bogosian's Pulitzer-nominated play Talk Radio. A cult favorite flick featuring Bogosian and a fresh-faced Alec Baldwin, it's not filed by the hundreds on the local Blockbuster shelf. People who know it OWN it. Ever seen it staged? Got the cojones to produce it? This tension-riddled, cynical play about a fictitious Cleveland-area shock jock, surly, chain-smoking, booze-swilling Barry Champlain, who runs his mouth and eviscerates his soul non-stop in front of a "live audience", has prescient, ominous relevance for today. Guess that's why when its stage revival hit Broadway in 2007 it knocked a metaphorical crater in the Great White Way.

Directed by Tony Award-winner Robert Falls and starring Liev Schreiber, it garnered Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama League award nominations for Best Revival of Play and Best Actor in a Play. Additionally, Schreiber was awarded the prestigious Drama League Award for his Distinguished Performance. Playwright Bogosian commented, "Talk Radio kind of surprised people, because they revived it last year, twenty years after it had been written, and it felt fresh. But that's because I don't really write about topical stuff; I write about American attitudes, American values, my values, my attitudes." A Play with 'Tude.

It takes a theatre company with 'tude to do it justice. The creative folks steering Dallas' Upstart Productions possess those creative cojones to embrace Talk Radio and make it their own, sweeping the audience right along with them. Their production running at the Green Zone off Irving Blvd. through November 21 is a must-see for media junkies, aspiring shock-jocks and lovers of knife-edged, realite theatre alike.

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It starts when you pass through black velvet drapes and beneath the dark On Air sign to find your chair on the risers facing the inward-driven playing space. You've just traveled through time to find yourself a fly on the wall inside the recesses of an early 1980's radio station in Cleveland, Ohio. Across the back of the space spans weird little glass-faced cubicles where sound techies and programming staff work their voodoo so the "talent", the DJ's du jour, can focus on spinning LP's and amusing themselves aloud to anonymous nobodies. Center stage, unlit, perches a long desk with mikes and headsets, various recording paraphernalia and a black leather office chair behind, empty. The staff bustle and tweak things in their glass-fronted boxes, anxiously readying the 'show' for the next diva as the audience gets seated, subdued, expectant.

With no fanfare he bursts onto the scene, all business, harried, a middle-aged wiry man on a mission. He hurls himself into the chair, lights the first of a non-ending stream of cigarettes and barks orders with accustomed cynical vehemence, sans pleasantries or eye contact. The man creating talk radio has arrived. Like a conductor with baton, he pulls the mike to his face and the sound tech counts him down to airtime. The On Air sign flashes crimson. Barry Champlain has ascended the throne. He's controversial and popular, and he doesn't give a damn. He's ready to dish out as good as he gets to a twisted, adoring public. Don't mess with him; he might hurt you.

Eric Bogosian wrote this play with Tad Savinar, this role, for himself, based partly on the real life of cutting edge sensation shock-jock Alan Berg, murdered by a racist for his provocateur style and risky subject matter. It made Bogosian's career. Upstart Productions features Elias Taylorson in the title role. It may prove to be a defining role for him as well.

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It's all Barry on the mike, never a hint of Taylorson acting as Barry. Regional director Regan Adair has created intense focus with classical pace and rhythm. Barry bounces in a blink from fending off an on-air procession of wackos on to dressing down his co-workers for perceived transgression to hard-edged negotiating with the smarmy, controlling station manager, played with reptilian officiousness by Shane Beeson. The non-stop barrage never gives Taylorson time to pause or think; he simply reacts in character, lit cigarette dangling and booze close at hand, in what amounts to a commanding, poetic, offhand stream-of- consciousness performance. At moments he seems like a benign fatherly figure dispensing kindly advice; other times he seems like a cornered, rabid beast, lashing out at tormentors. Without warning he crumbles into a bewildered, exhausted loner -- the weight of the world's soul bearing down on him. The fluctuating beats flow naturally, as if he is living them. The other characters flutter around Barry in oddly syncopated yet naturalistic harmony, again reflecting the thoroughness of director Adair's artistic vision and the trust and focus of this tight, professional ensemble.

Long before Lockerbie, the Unabomber, McVeigh and 9-11, or the likes of Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh, Barry Champlain (nee Alan Berg) hunkered close in to his microphone amidst clouds of cigarette smoke, and prophesied a drugged-out, fear and hatred-riddled future in a nation consumed with trivial, consumerist pursuit. Powerful commentary for its era. Upstart Productions explores current relevance in the work and sends the audience out to ponder what the future may hold. They got 'tude.

The excellent cast includes: Joey Folsom, Lulu Ward, Raquel Lydia Leal, Tony Martin, Meridith Morton, Michael Rains, Darren Steptoe and Clay Wheeler. Joel and Scott Bayer, Scott Payne and Mason York designed the time-suspending set, lighting and sound.

BONUS! Post performance, Upstart shares an informative video documenting an interview Elias Taylorson conducted with Judith Lee Berg, ex-wife of Alan Berg, the model for Barry Champlain, and Stephen Singular, Berg's biographer. Stick around for the facts.

Talk Radio runs through November 21 at the Green Zone, 161 Riveredge Drive. Co-produced with Project X.

Feature article on this production of TALK RADIO and Elias Taylorson in Dallas News' Guide Live 11/04/09:

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Freelance writer, arts advocate and NEA Fellow in theatre criticism, progressive activist and independent blue-stocking, loves Guinness and strong coffee, early sunrise in the Sierras, most 4-leggeds; will work and pray for Sustainability & Peace....

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