One of my final projects in my second year of grad school (the last year of classes) was to produce an hour-long radio show with my three fellow dramaturgs, who, luckily for me, all happened to be folks of the awesome persuasion. I dubbed it “MFA FM” because I’m clever like that, and our nine playwrights collaborated on three short pieces that were all genre send-ups: an unusual housewife solving 15-minute mysteries, a hard-boiled cop walking his gritty beat, and a teen drama about high school where one of the cliques just happened to be comprised of zombies. The highlight of the show came in its actual production, where our sound man had to not only use the trademark tiny door for entrances and exits and make gunshot sounds, but was required to create a zombie flesh-munching, bone-crunching sound that, as I remember, included celery and jelly. While the show was recorded for Columbia’s university radio station, the fun was really had by the live studio audience, which was there to “watch” radio and sound.
It was with this mindset that I went to watch The Canadian Space Opera Company’s Gravestone Posse, set, appropriately enough, at another university’s radio station (University of Toronto, this time).
Gravestone Posse has all the hallmarks of a classic Western thriller, only the villainous gunslingers are more undead than usual. There’s James Pitt, the outlaw with the heart of gold who keeps the piece, the saloon owner Doc Watson and his virtuous daughter Effie, the town drunk Stumpy McReady, sultry singer Ulla, prissy Priscilla Farnsworth, Temperance advocate, the angry young upstart, increasingly Nasty Norman Entwistle, the sheriff and his nebbish civilian deputy, and of course the band of rogues up to ruining the town. Only this time, the bar owner is a living Wikipedia, the singer is a fish-obsessed Norwegian, and the rogues are zombies.
The show is full of puns and cheeky innuendo, although it turns out that the “pelvic massage” might actually be…a massage concentrating on the pelvis. The story and characters are necessarily predictable (to the point of “hoary old chestnut” status), but do have enough twists to keep things interesting even if the writing isn’t comedy gold, and occasionally not even comedy bronze. The jokes, again, run to the silly and punning. Many of them are quite funny, but there are some real timing issues that cause others to whimper and peter out. A strength of a fake radio show is always its ludicrous commercials, and these ones, at least, don’t disappoint.
Many in the cast do some fine voice work, those playing Stumpy, Priscilla, and Ulla/Norman in particular, but others are less confident and there is one particularly weak link in the cast who cannot hold an accent, a fatal attribute in radio.
The show attempts to play with some of the conventions of radio, but doesn't go far enough in its exploration. One thing that caught my attention was the lack of doubling. The cast was quite large, with only a couple of double roles. Double (or triple) roles for voice actors is one of the greatest attributes of radio – it signifies a clear difference from a staged reading. Perhaps some further employment of this concept would have resulted in a tighter, more interesting show. The more the hallmarks of radio are acknowledged and lampooned, the more worthwhile the show becomes as both radio performance piece and commentary.
The sound effects were ably performed, and one important radio tradition was given its due when the effects artist became responsible for aurally creating an extremely elaborate fight scene that we only hear described. It’s in poking fun at these customs that the show finds its feet. Sometimes the best moments are when a show loses its footing, though; for the last shot, the gun didn’t go off. Startled, the effects artist just said, “BANG.” The magic of live radio.