The Red Badge of Courage

Stephen Crane’s classic American novel about a novice soldier during the U.S. Civil War has probably been adapted to audio more than once, but the version I heard was a feature length production from 2010 by The Colonial Radio Theatre. It’s a faithful, deliberately respectful version (according to the intro intentionally trying to maintain much of the language of the book — and utilizing the first person narration).

Admittedly, despite being a classic — or more likely, the reason it is a classic — is because it is a pretty straightforward story, about a young man experiencing the crucible of war, wandering through battles and the aftermath of battles, and less a “plot” with story twists and turns. And philosophically, it’s a brutal, unsentimental look at war without, quite, going so far as to be an anti-war story. Still, probably as good an audio production of the tale as you could want, with performances restrained enough to be effective, but with a slightly theatrical flavour, giving the thing an (appealing) Old School vibe, like watching some 1950s teleplay.

War With the Newts

Karl Capek’s (who coined the term “robot” in his play R.U.R.) satirical parable about the discovery of humanoid reptiles on earth and how they are at first exploited, then become a threat to human life, was turned into a 90 minute BBC Radio play in 2005.

Unfortunately, the source story may have proven problematic to adapt to a conventional drama as it’s more a broad canvassed tale, with no main character to follow, so the radio play turns it into a story-within-a story, as we keep cutting between the story…and Capek and his wife discussing the story, presumably partly to give us consistent “main” characters. It’s an unsatisfying solution (though the actors are fine) the scenes with Capek and his wife self-conscious and too obviously just stuck in to pad the running time or to bridge the narrative.

As well, though no doubt seminal, the overall story/theme is pretty standard by now, and since it is just the theme and metaphor (as opposed to being a character drama or adventure plot utilizing a familiar theme and metaphor) it can all seem a bit obvious and straightforward — the outline for a story, rather than a story. And, by mixing his metaphors and allegories, Capek kind of ends up with mixed messages. The first part seems to be a satire/criticism of imperialism and racism, as the Newts are exploited…but then it becomes a metaphor for the rise of Nazism (the story first written in the 1930s) as humans turn a blind eye to the growing threat of the increasingly militaristic Newts. But as such, the two metaphors (Newts as victims, Newts as villains) kind of work against each other.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Funnily, I’m not sure there have been many other (or any other!) radio adaptations of the story in the modern/post-OTR era (other than talking books). So this is an hour long BBC Radio drama from 1985 and scripted by Glyn Dearman. It takes an unusual approach to the classic horror/mystery story by Robert Louis Stevenson — by actually sticking close to the source novel!

That is, though the story has been filmed and staged innumerable times over the years, usually the focus — logically enough — is on Jekyll/Hyde. But the original novel was actually written as a mystery, with another character, Utterson (here voiced by Bernard Hepton), as essentially the main hero, who finds himself investigating the strange events surrounding the sinister Mr. Hyde and trying to fathom the man’s connection to the respectable Dr. Jekyll who seems to be covering for him. It’s not really until half way through the novel that the solution is revealed — and then it retells the events from Jekyll’s perspective (such spilt-perspective mysteries were not uncommon in the 19th Century, including some Sherlock Homes novels).

So this radio drama decides to go back to basics, and tells the story as a mystery (though with the revelation serving as the climax of the story, as opposed to then launching into an entire second half detailing it). And even knowing the solution (as most people will) it’s an effective, intriguing approach (if only just as something different from the standard Jekyll/Hyde movies) — much as I found it intriguing when I first read the novel. And the production itself is well done, and briskly-paced. Obviously, the fantasy/horror aspect is less pronounced (since it only comes into play toward the end) but compelling nonetheless — and an interesting chance to perceive the story as Stevenson originally intended it, as a “mystery.”

8

L.A. Theatre Works production recorded in 2012 of the play by Dustin Lance Black about the 2008 California court case involving Proposition 8 — a referendum proposal to ban same sex marriage (or more to the point: to strip that right that had previously been granted).

Part of the impetus for the play was that those arguing in favour of Equal Rights had wanted the trial broadcast to the public (as is often done in the U.S.) but the side arguing against gay marriage refused to agree (leading the makers of the play to present this as the story the anti-gay marriage side didn’t want the public to hear). The play is less a fictional dramatization than it is a recreation of key scenes and arguments, to essentially provide a public record of the trial (albeit trimmed to 90 min).

Initially intended both as an education in civil rights struggles and a fund raiser for Same Sex marriage rights, it was produced with all-star casts in New York and L.A. with this a recording of the L.A. show. Directed by Rob Reiner — yes, Rob Reiner — it’s a pretty heavy weight (all volunteer) cast, including George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt, John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch (as well as her fellow Glee castmates Chris Colfer and Matthew Morrison) and others. Because it‘s a recording of a stage performance, the audience will sometimes cheer or applaud when the actor comes on — but you have to wait till they speak to know what famous actor the audience is responding to! (Or to pick up on the “in joke” — the audience laughs knowingly when the character of the virulently anti-gay activist Maggie Gallagher appears, but it’s only when you realize the openly gay actress Lynch is playing her that you get the deliberately ironic casting).

Admittedly, given the nature of the script, a lot of the actors don’t necessarily get to shine in performances. Though with stand outs including Sheen, Bacon and Reilly, the latter two in essentially “villain” roles, so getting more colourful — and ultimately humorous — parts, with Bacon, as the lawyer against marriage rights, stumbling and stammering over the dubious logic of his own argument, and Reilly playing a particularly eccentric witness.

Of course the play has a bias (it was intended as a fund raiser, Reiner and others were actually involved in funding the court case the play is portraying, and the audience applauds vigorously at key speeches) and is most appealing for those who already support equal marriage rights. Yet if you’re on the fence, but open minded, the play is an interesting chance to hear the arguments (or lack thereof) made on either side. And as an example of civil rights trial theatre (think Inherit the Wind or 12 Angry Men) it’s fairly compelling — with some good dramatic moments, good emotional moments, and good funny moments. Though since based mainly on the court transcripts and ancillary interviews, it’s not like there are character sub-plots, or even closed door negotiations to be revealed. But ultimately, tightly paced and an effective court room drama.

The CD contains probably an hour of extras, including interviews with some of the cast, Black and Reiner, and the real life lawyers who argued for same sex marriage rights — and against Proposition 8 — David Boies and Theodore B. Olson.

STRONTIUM DOG (2000 AD)

Two hour long “Strontium Dog” adventures (well, three — more on that in a moment) were produced by Britain’s successful Big Finish based on the science fiction comic book adventures of an intergalactic bounty hunter, Johnny Alpha, and his allies (though using original scripts/stories). There was a third play, in that Johnny appeared in the Judge Dredd audio drama, “Pre-Emptive Revenge” — and since it‘s an equal teaming, it could just as easily be regarded as a Strontium Dog play guest starring Judge Dredd.

BF produced these as part of their 2000 AD line (a title borrowed from a British comic book) along with dramas based on the much more famous Judge Dredd comics. The line didn’t really seem to take off (they produced 16 Dredd plays over two years, then scaled back to a handful of enhanced readings, then stopped altogether). But they may have backed the wrong horse — because the Strontium Dog tales were arguably the superior, and perhaps should’ve been marketed on their own. And rely less on the 2000 AD connection — since it might’ve made people unfamiliar with the comic give the audio dramas a miss, assuming they’d have to already be a fan (I’d never even heard of the comic and yet really enjoyed the audio dramas).

Judge Dredd is a, frankly, problematic property — since it’s constantly torn between being camp/parody and straight adventure. But the Strontium Dog plays were more straight-faced — plenty of wit and comedy, sure, but less overt camp, so you could still groove to the characters and the action-suspense.

Simon Pegg voiced lead character, Johnny Alpha — Pegg best known as a comic actor in movies, but here truly excellent in a serious role as the gruff-but-sympathetic mercenary. And there was nicely evoked camaraderie and comic banter between the characters (Johnny, Wulf, McNulty and Grokk) — the characters and the actors really gave the plays an extra soul.

Although the plays are unconnected, “Down to Earth” (2002) makes a good intro to the premise, as it takes place on earth and explains the reality and the history (Johnny and others are mutants — caused by Strontium radiation — in a world where anti-mutant prejudice still lingers). It has a cyberpunk-ish vibe with Johnny returning to earth to find his kidnapped partner, Wulf.

“Fire from Heaven” (2003) has them in their more typical milieu of deep space, tracking a fugitive on alien worlds for a more Star Trek/Star Wars feel (and with more humour — a comedy-drama adventure). Both are quite entertaining — well acted, good sound production (though some of the action scenes are a bit confusing, and with a slight “mature” edge) and with some clever twists and turns (and some imaginative SF concepts).

The Judge Dredd play, “Pre-Emptive Revenge” (2004), has the two characters bickering as they traverse a bombed out wasteland, and coming upon a seeming deserted enemy outpost. Also quite entertaining, with an added eerie atmosphere because of the setting.

The fact that each has a slightly different milieu/vibe maybe means if they were only going to do three, at least they aren’t just carbons of each other (one cyberpunkish near future, one Star Trek-like deep space, one post-Apocalyptic).

Down to Earth and Pre-Emptive Revenge are still available for download from the BF website. Fire from Heaven is available for free streaming at a BBC website. All are available from iTunes.

I suppose the limited number might also be because Pegg‘s film success made it harder to find windows in his schedule to record them. But whatever the reason, it’s really too bad BF didn’t do more, because these stand among my favourite audio SF adventures.

V.I. Warshawski

V.I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky’s tough talking Chicago female detective/lawyer, had been featured in a series of successful mystery novels when she was portrayed by Kathleen Turner in an ill-fated, ill-reviewed Hollywood motion picture. But though the movie bombed, it may’ve succeeded in boosting the character’s profile, because shortly thereafter BBC Radio did some multi-episode adaptations of Paretsky’s novels. Two — Deadlock and Killing Orders — featured Turner again (despite the movie’s bad reviews, most felt Turner herself was well cast in the role) with a British cast (adopting American accents) and another — Bitter Medicine — has Sharon Gless taking over the title role (though with the same supporting cast and bluesy theme music indicating the BBC saw it as part of the same series). A fourth was, I gather, just a dramatic reading by yet another actress.

The full cast productions are decent, though uneven, with some broad supporting characters (as performed and written) and though the liberal/political undercurrents are actually kind of refreshing in a detective genre that’s usually more A-political or even conservative (the stories make points about religion, medicine, abortion, feminism, etc.) it can seem a bit stridently over-the-top — pedagogical pronouncements rather than stemming from natural conversations.

The first I heard was KILLING ORDERS (6 eps) as Warshawksi investigates when an aunt she hates is, nonetheless, implicated in a counterfeit stock crime, which leads to powers in the Catholic Church and attempts on Warshawksi’s life. Kathleen Turner is good, and the serial decent enough — though a bit uneven, whether as a fault of the novel itself or an occasionally clumsy attempt to turn it into six half hour episodes: emotions can ping pong around in a given scene, awkward expository dialogue is crammed in, even the basic plot can be a bit confusing (dealing as it does with a mixture of corporate crime and mob hits). Still, holds your interest, and with the largely British cast (other than Turner) doing credible American accents. Turner does the voiceover narration in a kind of quirky, breathless way — almost as though muttering to herself under her breath more than the “narrator voice” way such pieces are usually read/played by actors — for an interesting effect. DEADLOCK involved her investigating an ex-hockey player cousin’s mysterious death while he was working on a loading dock, leading her to uncover maritime malfeasance.

BITTER MEDICINE (6 eps) involves death and corruption at a ritzy hospital, and has some similar problems of a tendency for characters to erupt emotionally with little provocation (particularly her love/hate relationship with a blustering cop) but the plot maybe seems a little smoother developed. Sharon Gless is certainly good and seems comfortable with the audio format. But though I can’t put my finger on why, she’s maybe not quite as compelling as Turner was in the role.

Admittedly, my mixed feeling toward all three serials may stem from the source books (few of which have I yet read). Like a lot of detective novel heroes, there’s nothing here that really makes V.I. — or her cases — stand out from any other hero/heroine.

PERRY MASON

Earl Stanley Gardner’s lawyer-detective first came to audio life in a 1930s radio series — though with curious results, as it was done as basically a soap opera, with Mason — and the crime element — present, but apparently not always dominant. When it morphed into a TV series, Gardner even refused to allow them to continue using the name, and it became…The Edge of Night (a long running soap opera). That seemed to be it for decades as far as “official”* audio productions (*more on that in a moment) until:

2010 when the Colonial Radio Theatre started producing full cast, feature-length adaptations of the original novels. Though faithful to the books, fans of the popular (and arguably character defining) 1950s-1960s TV series with Raymond Burr might be a little surprised at this version of Perry — he’s flintier and more hard-boiled, and even more willing to bend the law. But they’re actually being true to the original books. And in other respects — fans of the TV series will feel right at home (same sort of cases, same supporting cast of Della Street, Paul Drake, etc.) as should fans of Gardner’s books.

They only made five (so far) which is too bad –’cause they’re highly enjoyable! That’s thanks, obviously in part, to simply sticking to Gardner’s original stories, with twists and turns, and also to a rapid fire pacing that never allows it to get dull (without feeling rushed or like the story is getting muddled by cramming it into the running time). And the lawyer-angle — as opposed to the hero being a cop or detective — gives the mysteries an extra twist, the cases often nicely convoluted, not just beginning with a body-in-the-library sort of thing.

Admittedly, at times the performances can seem a bit like actors in a community theatre — a talented community theatre, but still not quite top drawer stuff. Though Jerry Robins — who also directed — was effective as Perry. But although I’m saying some of the performers were a bit uneven…it was still perfectly good and despite a hard boiled Perry, equally evocative of the TV series (with the audio Paul Drake even sounding like TV‘s Drake). They CDs are well worth tracking down. The plays: The Case of The Sulky Girl, The Case of The Howling Dog, The Case of The Luck Legs, The Case of The Velvet Claws and The Case of The Curious Bride.

There’s one final — unofficial — addition to Perry Mason-in-audio: a few audio tracks of the popular, seminal TV series starring Raymond Burr sometimes float about the internet, popping up on Old Time Radio sites, though not official “audio” productions. The ones I’ve come across are The Case of The Angry Mourner, The Case of The Silent Partner, The Case of The Drowning Duck and The Case of The Restless Redhead. Because these are just the TV soundtracks, some of the action will be a bit confusing (as dramatic music plays and you aren’t sure what the actors are doing) but the talky nature of the Mason scripts means they still work surprisingly well, benefiting, of course, from the good scripts and from hearing the signature and fondly recalled actors in the roles. The Silent Partner perhaps suffers the most from the lack of visuals (a few scenes where action is occurring) but even it you can follow, and the others are surprisingly effective as audio dramas.

Inspector ALLEYN

Inspector ALLEYN, Ngaoi Marsh’s early/mid 20th Century police inspector, has appeared in four BBC radio adaptations (between 2001 – 2006) as hour long mysteries, starring Jeremy Clyde.

Eminently enjoyable and well produced…albeit largely interchangeable with any other similar series, Alleyn himself of the familiar “gentleman” detective archetype and not especially unique or anything. The fact that they seemed to be produced by the same people (such as scripter Michael Bakewell) behind various Agatha Christie radio adaptations and similar things perhaps furthering the familiar vibe. But as I say: briskly paced and quite enjoyable, often appealingly ensconced in archetypal, almost cliched, English mystery milieus — one about a murder during a “murder game” at an English estate (A Man Lay Dead), another about back stage at a theatre (Opening Night), another involving a quirky family of quasi-nobility who live like the idle rich…even though they’re broke (A Surfeit of Lampreys)! The fourth takes place amid tourists in Italy (When in Rome).

The fact that these are novels shoe-horned into hour long plays might make purists balk, but whatever is excised in the translation, they work well in that format, well paced and well performed. Of course the fact that so many seem to revolve around a set location with a limited cast (even When in Rome, with Alleyn on assignment in Rome and getting caught up in murder involving a tour group) actually means they lend themselves to the format quite well — almost as though written to be turned into plays!

Mizlansky / Zilinsky

L.A. Theatre Works audio adaptation of the play by John Robin Baitz, a satire of Hollywood’s fringe dwellers, also rans, and tax shelter schemes. It involves a fading movie mogul who’s trying to market Bible stories on audio, but has cooked the books in the process.

Enjoyable enough comedy and satire (with a darker bite, dealing with anti-Semitism — most of the characters are Jews) though can be one of those plays which is a tad unsatisfying by the end. Not gut busting hilarious, yet not completely satisfying emotionally (since Mizlansky is an anti-hero) or conceptually (it’s not like it’s some grand house of cards scheme). Even the anti-Semitism can feel a bit tacked on toward the end simply to add gravitas. And I’m sometimes a bit ambivalent about stories that, on one hand, want to tackle prejudice and anti-Semitism — even as many of the Jewish characters are portrayed as con artists and avaricious. Baitz (who I assume is Jewish) presumably wants to satirize all sides, but it does seem to send mixed impressions.

Still, that aside, in short this is like a dozen better-than-average but not quite great plays and is certainly worth a listen. Though — dagnabit! — as a sci-fi fan, I’m not sure I appreciate the digs at science fiction (one character is an actor who is basically supposed to have hit bottom because he’s contemplating a role in a SF series). Ah, well…

The “name” cast of familiar voices is definitely an appeal, although with a certain mix of styles. Nathan Lane (as the scheming Mizlansky) is loud and more farcical (and Rob Morrow’s gay assistant is a bit broad) while Richard Masur and Paul Sand (as Zilinsky) play it more grounded and subtle, as do Grant Shaud and Robert Walden. Kurtwood Smith is also in the cast (and maybe a bit broader, too). All are good but, as I say, maybe coming at it from different angles. (Funnily, I came across a review of a stage production of this with some of the same actors — but cast in different parts!)

The Voice of God

2007 BBC Radio thriller/sci-fi by Simon Bovey told in 5 half hour episodes. A couple of geologists, investigating mysterious earth tremors in the Australian Outback, stumble upon a secret military research base developing sonic weapons — whose side effects may have the potential for even greater catastrophes down the line.

Decently acted suspense-thriller, with a cast including Clare Corbett, Matthew Dyktynski, and with Geoffrey Beevers especially good. And it’s suitably pulpy at times (building to an almost James Bond-like climax) but does suffer from logic/plausibility problems (from this being a seeming British project in Australia, to even just what does the villain thinks he’s going to accomplish toward the end?) As well, for a five episode serial, it doesn’t really seem that complex or twisty (there’s a murder midway through — but there aren’t a lot of suspects) — seeming too much a cerebral procedural at times to quite score as a fun thriller, yet too much a pulpy thriller to quite score as an intellectual drama (despite a few conversations that are mainly ideological discussions).

And I’m reminded of another Bovey-written radio serial — Slipstream — which also left me ambivalent. Despite genuine attempts at character stuff (one of the geologists is half-Aboriginie) it never quite becomes a character drama where the characters are what’s holding your interest, and though it is, in a sense, supposed to be a liberal drama with an anti-military theme — in other ways Bovey seems a little ambivalent toward the fascist aspects (maybe because the civilian heroes seem a bit quick to unthinkingly throw in with the army types at the beginning). But, admittedly, some of that’s just me — I’m not necessarily keen on stories where characters find themselves in a military/fascist environment and, at least at first, don’t resist it.

The main flaws, as I say, are just that I didn’t really care much about the characters and, given it’s stretched over 5 episodes, the plot (more or less) goes where you expect it to. Coincidentally, Corbett starred in another BBC Radio sci-fi thriller, Scramble, which shared some conceptually similarities!