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;Radio has often been called the "theater of the mind." That's because its concentration is strictly aural. Its lifeblood is the spoken word — fueled by the expressive human voice and underscored with sound effects and musical atmospherics. It really does take place inside one's own gray matter. One could argue that radio is at its best when one's eyes are closed. That way the listener has complete freedom to paint an original picture show on his or her inner scrim, unimpeded by outer, visual ephemera, creating a personal corollary to the soundscape tendered by the radio artists. This makes radio very different from theater and film, in which sound takes a back seat to visual stimulation and the viewer/listener is provided the bulk of sensory information.


;That being said, it has been an interesting weekend for this longtime radio fan. Yes, there were radios before iPods. In high school, my gods were the famed Firesign Theatre, a four-man radio troupe whose first three albums of "psychedelic vaudeville" my buddies and I committed to memory, largely replacing our everyday vocabularies with quotes from their wacky and evocative creations. In college, I directed my own radio theater company and those old reel-to-reel acetate tapes still exist somewhere in my attic.


;So with this history in mind — on to my conundrum. How to approach two current productions in which radio is lifted from its own universe in attempts to translate it to another medium? What to make of the Mad Cow Theatre's production of Kid-Simple, by Jordan Harrison, a "radio play in the flesh," with its hundreds of sound effects, miked and amplified actors, and wildly uncoiling plotline about the essence of sound and hearing, and A Prairie Home Companion, Robert Altman's rambling cinematic paean to Garrison's Keillor's popular public radio variety show of the same name?

;;For starters, there is no doubt that Kid-Simple is an innovative multimedia achievement. With its six actors and three techies facing the audience in an underlit and cozy evocation of an insulated and air-cooled broadcast studio, director Alan Bruun teases us to close our eyes in order to conjure up all of the locations and curious inner sanctums alluded to in the script's two intertwined story lines. One is a "radio play," and the other is about a young girl named Moll and her penchant for creating extraordinary, living inventions.

;;Yet because we are in a theater, we are required to watch, even though Kid-Simple works best on an aural plane — when the jazz vocals of the actors kick in, backed up by some interesting audio effects from soundman Kurt Wagner; or when Sarah French, as the brainy protagonist, Moll, ratchets up her convincing oral petulance; or when Kevin Kelly, as the Mercenary, seduces our ear-drums with finely crafted vocal mannerisms culled from his protean array of characters.


;But the work ultimately falls short as a stage play because there really is not that much to look at over the course of its 90 minutes — even though the cast does break away from their desks from time to time to create a movement dynamic between the characters, and two television screens on either side of the stage cue us intermittently about the sounds emanating from the extensive speaker system.


;In the end, Harrison's work is still a dish for the ears, not the eyes. And because sight is our pre-eminent sense, when we look at something, our brains tend to dampen our aural receptivity. Kid-Simple is mainly an auditory adventure, so why ask us to experience it with one "ear" tied behind our backs?

;;I was similarly disappointed by A Prairie Home Companion, but for a different reason. I'm a fanatical devotee of Keillor's show. Over 30 years, I have developed a veritable museum of mind pictures built upon the high level of its auditory creativity — verbal-, musical- and sound-effect-wise. In a way, I have co-created thousands of hours of radio with Keillor and his crew, so it was impossible not to bring that with me.


;Sadly, then, I spent most of the time watching the filmed, fictional version of the real radio show in a state of cognitive dissonance. None of the pictures that I had fabricated in my own mind jibed with Altman's idiosyncratic rendition of Keillor's underwhelming and disjointed screenplay. And compared to my own extensive visual canvas, Altman's was not that interesting.


;For instance, watching John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson mug and cavort as Lefty and Dusty from the real radio show's ongoing serial, "The Lives of the Cowboys," was a monumental letdown compared to the enjoyment I experience weekly listening to Keillor and actor Tim Russell artfully portray the same characters. Ditto, Keillor's alter ego gumshoe, Guy Noir. Though a gifted and thoroughly convincing performer, Kevin Kline's characterization of Noir was completely out of place as the fake radio station WLT's security honcho.


;In addition, the usually brilliant and loquacious host of the show, Garrison Keillor, who is often lauded as a modern Mark Twain, relegated his own character in the movie to that of a shuffling, uncommunicative stiff, devoid of wit and charm. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, as the singing Johnson Sisters, seemed to be using Altman's improvisatory style to indulge themselves to an unbecoming degree.


;I'm not saying that Keillor doesn't have the right to manipulate his made-up universe precisely as he pleases; I'm just annoyed that he didn't clear it with me first. I wish I had been able to enjoy the movie more on its own terms, but my response was that of someone who has been cheated out of something private and precious, only to have it replaced by something perfunctory and self-aggrandizing.


;I think I need to get under the covers, turn out the lights and turn on my radio. That will undoubtedly make me feel better. As Moll suggests in Kid-Simple, the real joy is the sound of the cogs in one's own head. And some things are better left sight unseen.




Through Sunday, June 25


Mad Cow Theater


(407) 297-8788





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