I’ve never been a fan of audience participation. I like to sit in the back, avoid eye contact with the actors, and enjoy the silent anonymity of a dark theater.
So, I was slightly apprehensive about Kevin Rice’s new play at the Payomet Performing Arts Center, billed as a “site-specific” and “audience interactive” Cold War comedy. My plan was to stay inconspicuous — “under the radar,” if you will.
Showings of Under the Radar take place at 10:30 a.m., which is a bit early for me. Upon arrival, I was handed a form by a rather gruff-looking woman in uniform enlisting me in the “762nd Air Force Radar Squadron.” The date: June 1969.
I signed the first line, bleary eyed, before realizing that signing the second would have allowed me to be a “conscientious objector.” Too late! Speaking to the other “new recruits,” I learned that nearly everyone had done the same thing.
The play begins with the audience seated in the Payomet tent. At first protected by that invisible veil that separates spectators from actors, we meet Major Tom Cole, a seemingly stern but actually very silly man, played by Robin Bloodworth. Bloodworth excels at physical comedy, aided by the taped, slightly bent cane on which he leans to drink his coffee, and his mock-military walk.
We also meet Sgt. Echol Walker, or Echo for short, played by Shabazz Green. Echo is Cole’s undeniably likable complement. Their relationship is amusing: Cole keeps ordering Echo to sing Patti Page’s “Old Cape Cod,” and Echo grudgingly obliges him. At one point, “Hello, I Love You” by the Doors blasts on the radio as Cole dances dorkily.
Suddenly aware of the “new recruits,” Major Cole addresses us directly, breaking the fourth wall. He explains that our job will be to monitor the skies for enemy attack. Who is the enemy, he asks? Communists, a.k.a. “subscribers to the New Yorker magazine.”
But it’s important not to worry the civilians, he emphasizes, while keeping the Ruskies at bay. “Sir, that’s the bay,” says Echo, pointing west. Then, pointing east, he declares, “That’s the ocean!” It’s an obvious joke, but it lands perfectly. As does Cole’s riff about the essential difference between Truro and North Truro. When an only medium-loud alarm goes off, the audience, naturally, barely reacts. “That was a routine alert,” Cole says. “You handled it well.”
Here, we are introduced to Airwoman Freed, played by Paige O’Connor, who had been sitting in the wings. She is the squadron’s new Missile Man, or rather, “Missile Ma’am.” Her character is brilliant, competent, and stoic — oddly believable in an otherwise outrageous play. She is the straight woman to the outlandish Cole and unabashedly flirtatious Echo.
Prompted by another alarm, the audience is rousted for a surprisingly informative tour of the radar station. We learn that it has all the amenities: bowling alley, golf course, library, mess hall, and movie theater. Whenever an audience member answers a question correctly, Cole shouts “Very good!” in a piercing tone.
We are also treated to a seemingly impromptu performance of Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam” on an outdoor stage. Indeed, the ironic intrusions of music in Under the Radar, though perhaps not quite as artful as Stanley Kubrick’s, nonetheless evoke Dr. Strangelove.
As we are marched rank and file around the station, I am thankful that my mask hides that I’m barely mouthing “One, Two, Three, Four.” Overall, however, the audience participation is gentle and, dare I say, fun.
Towards the end, Cole’s tone gets sappy: One day, the land on which we stand may become a center for the arts and sciences. “It’s a vision worth fighting for,” he says. “Swords to ploughshares.” Just then, a bomb drops, engulfing the station in flames. End play.
It’s impossible not to imagine the hilariously black ending of Dr. Strangelove — footage of mushroom clouds accompanied by the song “We’ll Meet Again.” Could this be a subtle poke at the Highlands Center development project that was never completed? In any case, I’m thankful for Payomet. And that North Truro didn’t get blown up during the Cold War.
Just a Blip
The event: Under the Radar, by Kevin Rice, directed by Daisy Walker
The time: Wednesday through Sunday, 10:30 a.m., through Sept. 5
The place: Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Road, North Truro
The cost: $30; students, teachers, and veterans $25