One Sunday morning in 1998, walking out of the sweltering August into the sweltering tenement, up two vertiginous flights of stairs, past the beery scent of the bar, along the crumbly banisters, through a small door, you enter the damp, cramped world of Bender. With a few Manhattans ladled from a bucket and promptly poured down your throat (11 a.m., never too early for bourbon), you watch as a trio of performers enact a noir even less concerned with plot than The Big Sleep.
P.I. Bender—Hawaiian-shirted, bug-eyed, blotto—attempts to dismiss his conspiracy theories long enough to solve a kidnapping-murder-suicide case. He contends with a ditsy secretary, a mustachioed LAPD lieutenant, an electric baby, a theremin, and, from behind a curtain, Satan. As the plot convulses and the performers cue a dizzying program of sound effects, Bender bellows about “a tweak of fate, a ripple in the airwaves, a crack in the sky, a screaming closure in the distance, a dripping of light, and a last resort.” Yeah, the d.t.’s will do terrible things to a man. But Bender’s screed isn’t a half-bad articulation of the play itself, or of the next four anarchic, infectious, inebriated works these performers—eventually incorporated as Radiohole—will come to produce.
One of New York’s most remarkable companies, Radiohole is so downtown they’ve actually spent the last several years working out of Collapsable Hole, a Williamsburg space they share with fellow travelers Collapsable Giraffe. Past plays have explored Fassbinder, new-wave porn, the Nibelungenlied, German leftist terrorists, Gangster Computer Gods, and Godzilla’s arch-nemesis Rodan. Their directorless shows always involve free beer, pastiched texts, self-built sets, and ambitious light and sound effects worked onstage by the actors. On November 29, Radiohole returns to Manhattan, having received a commission from P.S.122 to debut None of It: More or Less Hudson’s Bay, Again. Asked why he booked Radiohole, P.S.122 artistic director Mark Russell replies, “They’re just a frigging good time—and how rare is that these days? Besides, they’re into chaos.”
Chaos is much in evidence at the Collapsable Hole, as the company—Eric Dyer, Maggie Hoffman, Scott Halvorsen Gillette, and Erin Douglass—rehearse None of It. Ashtrays, grant proposals, sombreros, rice cakes, bottle caps, Pepsi cans, and records of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police litter the set and seats. Though the grant proposals and rice cakes will probably remain at the Hole, much of this detritus will reappear on the P.S.122 stage. In Radiohole, there’s a congenial refusal to detach process from product, or, for that matter, life from process. “There isn’t a huge separation between life and the work we’re making,” says Douglass. “Whether it’s drinking or farting or whatever it is,” adds Hoffman, it’ll show up in the rehearsal room. “The drinking,” Dyer offers, “has nothing to do with the pieces—it’s just what we do. It’s not like other people’s rehearsal processes where it’s all about art and sacred cows. This is part of our lives and drinking is also part of our lives, so we come in and do our thing.” And if the performers quaff, it only seems fair the audience should get liquored up as well, hence the bucket of Manhattans (mixed by Hoffman’s dad—expertly) or the tallboys and Smirnoff Ices offered gratis at subsequent productions.
In None of It, booze will most likely be dispensed from the gleaming plastic monolith of the Dixie-Narco 276 Pepsi machine the group acquired. Personal vending machines are fine assets for any theater company, but this one functions thematically as well. Part of None of It draws on June Gibbons’s novel Pepsi-Cola Addict; June and her identical twin Jennifer were elective mutes imprisoned for criminal insanity in the 1980s. The piece also uses texts culled from dreams, Melville, Jacques Derrida, the Masked Marauders album, and documentation of 1940s murders in a Hudson Bay Inuit community. Dyer traveled there and returned with some liquid in a Classico jar labeled, “Hudson’s Bay, More or Less.”
Perhaps the water in the jar is simply New York tap. It doesn’t really matter. Nor does None of It‘s particular constellation of texts—save to demonstrate that the group is well and widely read. More significant are Radiohole’s methods of synthesizing them into a performance piece. What happens when they all come in with these diverse texts? “We fight,” says Dyer. “Pretty much,” says Hoffman. “Yeah,” Douglass avers. Gillette nods also—a rare moment of collective agreement.
If observed rehearsals are any indication, Radiohole members discuss, squabble, complain, comfort, threaten, and squabble again. (“There’s no judgment in saying it’s unbelievably annoying” was offered as constructive criticism.) Yet, miraculously, a piece coalesces in which the personalities of the performers manage to remain distinct—Dyer’s anticness, Gillette’s acerbity, Douglass’s petulance, Hoffman’s relative composure. Perhaps it’s this volatility—the sense that the uneasy truce between performers might rupture at any minute—that lends their shows such interest. Each Radiohole play is a personal chemistry lesson. “As much as I often hate these other three people, there’s no one else I’d rather work with,” Gillette sighs. Dyer adds, “We’re stuck with each other. Ultimately, we don’t know what makes this combination of people produce work that manages to distinguish itself, but it does.”
“All right,” bleats Douglass, tired of talking and anxious to begin the rehearsal, “let’s do that. Right now.”