Pineapple-Shaped Lamps (PSL), Wilmington’s nationally recognized sketch-comedy troupe, occasionally puts together full-length shows to augment their already hefty performance schedule. Anyone can catch their monthly show at TheatreNOW (19 S. 10th St.); as well, they tour for conventions, make short films, and host awards shows and charity events. Their current full-length show, Devin DiMattia’s “The Continuing Adventures of the Crimson Shadow,” plays at Red Barn Studio Theatre through May 1.
DiMattia has been developing this script for several years. It began as a few sketches for PSL performances, and in the last year he really fleshed it out into a full-length play with a plot arc. I admit: I have been looking forward this show because I am a huge fan of “The Crimson Shadow” material.
DiMattia utilizes the show within a show technique: “The Crimson Shadow” is a radio serial during WWII, but most of the story he is telling is about the actors, writers and producer of the show. The leads are very strong. But the ensemble cast really shine a light on the essential nature of voice actors in the golden age of radio. Somehow DiMattia has managed to assemble a fabulous cast, who not only buy in to his idea and sell it, but have the necessary abilities to make it believable.
The opening scene has announcer Keith Patterson (Beau Mumford), and his cast Sally Mahoney (Jessica Gift) and Pete Masters (Weber Drew Scheid), pacing the floor with Foley artist Dave Simmons (Blake Howard). They’re all wondering how they are going to do a live broadcast without their star, Sam Conway (Phill Antonino) and voice of The Crimson Shadow.
Even if Sam is a pain in the ass to work with, these guys are pros and manage to pull something together. In this first sequence, Gift and Scheid both get a chance to show off their vocal skills with a range of characters and situations, including fake commercials for products that can function as both dish soap and shoe polish. As an opening montage, it really sets the tone for what these young actors are hiding up their sleeves. Yet, Howard’s quiet, mild-mannered Foley artist upstages everyone—especially with his Tweety Bird sounds during a real-life, off-microphone fight. Twenty minutes in it became clear I was in for a night of very funny writing and great performing.
DiMattia’s script pays homage to old-time radio serials quite beautifully, while still cashing in on the absurd humor that is the hallmark of PSL. President Eisenhoover (Bryan Cournoyer) gives fireside chats on the radio that utilize pig Latin and also encourage pretty blatant racism and xenophobia during WWII. Randall Montgomery (Eddie Key), owner and producer of the radio station, is the cigar-chomping, real-life villain to these actors—not, as it turns out, the evil museum curators and dangerous milkmen they fight onair.
Jamie Davenport as the painfully dumb and untalented radio announcer of WHUT is a wonderful blend of physical comedy and anticipation. Together Emily Gomez, Erin Plum and Jessica Gift battle inherent sexism of the time, and bring to life a host of ridiculous parodies of female stock characters from the time: vamps, tramps, hard-nosed girl reporters, sweet innocents, talentless beauties, and sweet-voiced angels.
Antonino’s Conway is a womanizing, hard-drinking asshole—he happens to have gotten lucky with this role. He is not likable in daily life, but to misquote Eleanor Roosevelt, when he is in hot water, he discovers his real strength. While enjoying all of his over-the-top antics, Antonino does make that journey believable. As a result, he not only wins the audience’s sympathy but is part of creating a very funny, magical evening.
Honestly, a big piece of this show wouldn’t work if it weren’t for Chris Lewis, who plays Stephen Yakamoto. Yakamoto is an out-of-work Asian-American actor during WWII who is hired to play a host of hate-reinforcing stereotypes for “The Crimson Shadow.” Lewis has played this character since its debut in the sketch show. Aside from calling attention to the unpleasant realities of the human need for a scapegoat, especially in times of fear and uncertainty, Yakamoto’s role is to humanize the otherwise unpalatable Sam Conway. It’s a role that has to be funny, uncomfortable, challenging, and actually human—not obsequious.
DiMattia’s script manages to produce a variety of short stories that fit together to create a larger storyline reminiscent of old-time radio serials he references. The writing is witty, funny and multi-layered. Luckily, he managed to find a cast that really bring all of it to life. They make the jokes funny, sure, but they also infuse the moments with palpable growth. In a silly and fairly ridiculous way, DiMattia nods to some of our lower moments as a nation (the treatment of Asian-Americans during WWII, for example), but also shines a mirror on root causes of these actions which still plague us today.
There are a lot of offerings onstage right now, and that is a wonderful problem for us to have as a community. Make time to go see “The Continuing Adventures of the Crimson Shadow.” The writing is joyous, and the performances are super. It is an evening guaranteed for a laugh.