Modern Comedy Hits All the Right Notes
Reviewed by Sookie Mei
As a lifelong fan of the TV show WKRP In Cincinnati, and having DJed at CHRW 94.9FM for about a decade, I was looking forward to hanging out at a radio station again (albeit onstage) in Port Stanley Theatre Festival’s latest offering, On The Air. Happily, this new comedy by first-time playwright Ephraim Ellis is funny, engaging, and refreshing, and the audience is glad to tune in!
The plot is basic enough – the owner of The Loon 87FM, a small Northern Ontario radio station, passes away, and the people left behind must figure out how to keep the place going. The story is realistic and easy to follow, which allows the dialogue and acting to shine. Deeper levels of narrative also emerge, exploring family dynamics, commerce vs. soul, risk-taking, emotional baggage, and pursuing dreams, but the show retains its humour throughout and doesn’t sink into angsty drama.
As one would expect, a ragtag group of characters hangs out at the station, including the station manager Alice, played with energy by Caitlin Driscoll. Alice is anxious, doubts herself, and tends to talk a lot, but she is in charge, and Driscoll brings the right balance of jittery nerves and can-do attitude to the role. Coming in from the outside is Matt (Mark McGrinder), the son of the former station owner, who breezes in with all kinds of ideas about how to modernize and rebuild the station. McGrinder’s performance is layered, with bursts of energy and hope that inevitably lead to quiet introspection, and the actor has great comic timing. Added to the cast is has-been rocker DJ Buck (Scott Maudsley), whose rambling stories of the good old days are entertaining, but could be keeping the station too much in the past. Maudsley stays true to the character throughout, adopting a “smoked too much weed in his life” persona, and while he is endearing, Maudsley at times seems a bit larger than life compared with the other actors’ more realistic presentation. The late owner’s brother, Art, (Jeff Culbert) uses his generous donations to attempt to maintain some control, and Culbert is well-cast as the pompous, jazz-loving uncle who just wants to be seen, or in this case, heard. Hip intern Courtney (Alex Voutour) rounds out the group, providing a fun younger voice, and Voutour nicely captures the blend of boredom and inspiration that being an intern inspires.
Taking our seats, the setting of the show is clearly laid out, as the set brings the radio station to vivid life on the stage. Eric Bunnell’s design tells a good story, one of a long-lived station that is not fancy but gets the job done, complete with a vintage coffee urn and filing cabinets decorated with peeling band stickers. The set is warm, lived-in, slightly shoddy – a retro background for the modern events happening here and now. The broadcasting booth behind plexiglass is an excellent frame for secondary action, with a scene often playing out in the booth and another in front of it, and the station office to the side adds extra dimension to the set. Karen Crichton’s lighting focuses our attention so that the station’s low-wattage vibe is maintained, but the audience can see everything clearly.
A great cast is nothing without a good script, and this show delivers. A brand-new play that debuted in Port Dover a mere month ago, Ellis’ writing is clever, with a nice mix of jokey banter and sight gags, like a scene where Alice is silently mouthing her words until Matt takes off his headphones and both he and the audience finally hear her yelling. The characters are nuanced and believable, clearly defined right off the bat, and it feels like watching your favourite TV sitcom. The show is somewhat predictable – this is summer stock theatre after all – but the story moves along well, and sometimes it is nice to know going in that everything is going to work out fine. The play’s contemporary setting is welcomed, with references to social media, obscure new music genres, and podcasting…so great to watch a play set in the current millennia! There are some fun Canadian references and digs, including Art’s disdain at being forced to play a different kind of jazz: “Diana Krall? Do I look like I drink Chardonnay?” Here’s hoping we see more engaging modern theatre from this new Canadian playwright.
Ellis is known as Rick Murray on Degrassi: The Next Generation, the character who famously shot and paralyzed Drake’s character. He has also had a recurring role on Murdoch Mysteries as reporter Paddy Glynn, among many TV shows. As well, he has been in several movies, including the cult film, Stage Fright. We look forward to more of his writing.
On The Air comes with the tagline “What do you do when nobody, literally nobody is listening?” With a great production like this one, I hope that many people will be listening…and watching…and laughing!
On The Air continues at the Port Stanley Festival Theatre (PSFT) until July 29. Tickets are available at the PSFT box office at 519-782-4353 or 1-855-782-4353, or visit https://psft.ca.
Photo: Jeff Culbert, Mark McGrinder, Scott Maudsley, Caitlin Driscoll and Alex Vautour in On The Air.
On The Air
Written by Ephraim Ellis
Directed by Simon Joynes
Lighting Design by Karen Crichton
Set Design by Eric Bunnell
Stage Managed by Lani Martel
Performed by Jeff Culbert, Caitlin Driscoll, Scott Maudsley, Mark McGrinder, and Alex Vautour.
Port Stanley Festival Theatre, Bridge Street, Port Stanley
July 12 to 29, 2023
Reviewed by Sookie Mei