Audio & Podcasts

The Designated Mourner / Grasses Of A Thousand Colors / The Earth Moves – Audio Drama Review

Gideon Media – which builds on the theatrical tradition of Gideon Productions – has set about bringing to life a series of audio dramas which are available for free across various platforms where podcasts can be found. Here is our look at three of their recent releases.


The Designated Mourner

Wallace Shawn is a name most likely best known to the vast majority of people for his acting – whether as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, Rex in the Toy Story series, Grand Nagus Zek in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or Dr. John Sturgis in The Big Bang Theory spin-off Young Sheldon, Shawn is one of those familiar faces who always brings something very distinctive to his wide range of roles on screens both small and big.

However, audiences may be less aware Shawn has penned a number of plays for the theatre, including The Designated Mourner and Grasses Of A Thousand Colors, both of which have now been adapted for release in audio by Gideon Media. The former is set in an unnamed country where an upheaval is taking place, a rebel movement seeking to rise up against the status quo, in the form of a totalitarian government that is increasingly clamping down on its citizens’ liberty, taking away the freedoms we hold dear.

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The three characters here are Jack (Wallace Shawn), his wife Judy (Deborah Eisenberg), and father-in-law Howard (Larry Pine), with the story being conveyed partly via monologues, and partly by means of flashbacks. We get to see how a once-liberal society has gradually been eroded, with free thinkers and intellectuals being the subject of fear and distrust by the establishment. Having written some political essays while in his youth, Howard and his coterie all find themselves falling under the gaze and scrutiny of officialdom.

Although the main character, Jack is not especially likeable, and while we do get to see his mental deterioration during the play, echoing the decline of his society, there is a certain selfishness and jealousy which hints at these being facets of his true character. Jack acts out of a desperate sense of self-preservation, fearing an overthrowing of the current regime by the guerrillas may in fact prove to be a far worse personal outcome for him than if things continue as they are. Shawn does his utmost here not to elicit any sympathy for Jack from the audience.

Although written in 1996, the themes contained within The Designated Mourner have taken on a certain contemporary resonance, in light of the recent culture wars which seem to be raging, and the Trump presidency’s efforts to try to sow mistrust in arts and media, in order to try and tighten its grip on power and stifle any independent thinking, with an effort to paint liberalism as being evil or wrong. As such, this gives even greater weight to the piece as a whole, and makes this a powerful and worthwhile listen.


Grasses Of A Thousand Colors

Here, Shawn presents a piece which could be taken as prima facie something of a cautionary tale about playing God and disrupting the natural order of things, but it descends into a rather dreamlike – and, at times, nightmarish – state which has the effect of somewhat dampening its impact, if the sole intention is to be purely a warning against what could be yet to come. Perhaps, however, it is Shawn’s intention to merely use this as the backdrop to a dark fantasy.

Grasses Of A Thousand Colors, similarly to The Designated Mourner, is less of a conventional play, and more a series of monologues between the limited cast of characters, having limited interaction throughout. Here, Shawn is Ben, a doctor who comes up with a way to address the global hunger crisis, by developing a nutrient – Grain Number One – which sees animals feeding on each other for survival. However, having introduced this into the food chain, it starts to devastate the delicate balance of nature, creating a wave of sickness which afflicts the whole planet.

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Initially, Ben finds himself isolated from the impacts of this, thanks to the immense wealth resulting from his creation of this nutrient. Being rather phallocentric, his obsession with his own genitalia leads Ben into a series of relationships with three women – Cerise (Julie Hagerty), Robin (Jennifer Tilly), and Rose (Emily Cass McDonnell) – all of whom happen to be named after various shades of the colour red. However, Ben also finds himself engaging in a somewhat less conventional carnal arrangement with another partner, Blanche, who just happens to be a cat.

Shawn has taken some small inspiration from a French story – The White Cat – in bringing a cross-species relationship into the mix. Grasses Of A Thousand Colors is somewhat of a difficult and uncomfortable listen at times, in large part due to the high sexual content; this is not written in an erotic or a titillating manner, with the conventional human intercourse seeming rather depressingly messy and unsatisfying. Oddly, the only traces of sensuality actually come during the bestial coupling between Ben and his feline partner.

As such, the subject matter here can feel rather off-putting or alienating, but it shows how nature has been impacted to such a bewildering extent, and the norms and conventions of human society have all started to erode, as what should have been humanity’s saviour ends up actually being its downfall. Grasses Of A Thousand Colors is not the straightforward or conventional morality play it could have so easily been, and it challenges the audience’s expectations and perceptions in the process.


The Earth Moves

Playwright and audio dramatist Mac Rogers brings us a two-part tale based around Brent Ziff (Abe Goldfarb), a talk radio ‘shock jock’ very much in the vein of Howard Stern and his ilk. Ziff has attracted a huge following, thanks to his aggressive, snarky style and his belittling of callers to his show, which all his listeners love. One fateful evening, however, he receives a phone call from Leo Short (Brian Silliman), which manages to turn not just Ziff’s own world upside down, but also that of everyone else.

While initially seeming like the sort of loser which Ziff loves to attract and humiliate, Short – or ‘Shorty’, as Ziff refers to him – manages to get his attention with his prediction of an impending catastrophe. As events unfold, Ziff soon starts to realise this is not just another wacko or attention-seeker on the line, and Short’s incredible-sounding story of his bowel movements being inextricably linked to the very bowels of the planet itself begin to take on a terrible credibility which comes from some devastating consequences.

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Rogers tells his story in real time, and in using the format of a radio phone-in show, it means the piece is perfectly tailored to audio, as it feels like listening to an actual radio broadcast; in that sense, it therefore comes in the very best tradition of Orson Welles’ 1938 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds, which made such a powerful use of the medium for dramatic purposes, managing to sound like a real and totally credible broadcast for maximum impact.

The play is a two-hander between the characters of Ziff and Short, and what happens across the span of the full hour is a fascinating power exchange, as the usually brash and cocky Ziff ends up finding himself being shaken to the very core of his being, with Short gradually managing by degree to exert control over the situation. It acts as a careful deconstruction of the nature of fame, along with the considerable power and influence that the media can have, with Ziff finding himself taking on a whole new and unexpected significance.

The Earth Moves feels as though it could be on a par with the very best episodes of The Twilight Zone, and would certainly sit comfortably amongst them. What begins as an intimate setting soon starts to feel so claustrophobic and oppressive, and the strong performances by both Silliman and Goldfarb sell Rogers’ script beautifully, so what could have easily been an absurd premise in lesser hands actually comes across as a compelling and engaging story, and something which in fact demands – and deserves – a second listen.

 

The Designated Mourner, Grasses Of A Thousand Colors, and The Earth Moves are free on-demand to listeners across all platforms where podcasts can be found.

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