Review: THE FLATS (Radio Drama from Aurora in Berkeley, CA)

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by Tony Frankel on November 8, 2020

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area,Virtual


As theater companies experiment with ways to continue producing entertainment during COVID, a number of platforms are being experimented with. Live, recorded, Zoom, staged — you name it. But very few have turned to radio, which is surprising. It’s been said that radio is the invisible medium that has the greatest effect in stimulating the imagination of listeners, especially when it is a dramatization (versus narration). The imagination is aroused such that the listener becomes involved. The potential afforded to you by listening to a play stems from the very feature it does not possess: images. Studies have shown that listening actually has a calming effect; concentrating on imagination tunes out the mind’s blather.

But the new three-act world premiere play from Aurora Theatre Company doesn’t go nearly far enough to become the modern-day Twilight Zone-like radio mystery it wants to be. Because the script lacks story and gets talky, and because it wants so badly to offer insight and resonance regarding today’s pressing problems, there isn’t much to imagine. We go from exciting and interesting to frustrating and eventually trite and clichéd. This would have been a completely different review had I just heard Act I.

For over two and a half hours, we encounter only three characters (four if you include a late in the game cop): There’s Harmony (Lauren English), a white, middle-class separated mother who owns a Berkeley triplex, which just so happens to have a spare apartment when the city is put on a lockdown, a situation which is keeping her from her kids; Brooke (Khary L. Moye), a black man and tenant who’s working through a complicated love affair; and ex-hippie Leonard (Anthony Fusco), another tenant who spends time as a host for a liberal, conspiracy theory radio station on YouTube. His listeners hear theories as to what’s going on, although we won’t learn until later the reason for the curfew.

Three playwrights wrote the audio drama for Aurora: Lauren Gunderson wrote Holly, Cleavon Smith Brooke, and Jonathan Spector Leonard — all attempting to create a story that is as complex as today. White racism, fascism, therapy, lockdowns, fear, and being true to one’s self are central hear. To divulge just why Berkeleyites and the world have stay-at-home orders would be a spoiler, but instead of some sci-fi story containing universalisms, the second act is largely a set-up that goes nowhere, and the script becomes a treacly issue play by the third act. The first-act can be quite pleasant, especially given Spector’s insanely fun and crackling dialogue for Leonard. But throughout, the actors’ delivery doesn’t always jibe with the tense situation. (Elton Bradman’s sound design makes the dialogue remarkably clear — I enjoyed listening on headphones.) Aurora Artistic Director Josh Costello needed to go much further with his thesps so that English and Moye weren’t so tame, and Fusco didn’t sound as folksy as a Pepperidge Farm commercial.

The Flats
Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley, CA
ACT I Released October 23, 2020 | 57 minutes
ACT II Released October 30, 2020 | 35 minutes
ACT III Released November 6, 2020 | 60 minutes
accessible throughout the 2020-21 season
for tickets, visit Aurora

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