Review: ‘Red Herring’ at Carbondale’s Thunder River Theatre
If You Go …
What: ‘Red Herring,’ presented by Thunder River Theatre
When: June 27, July 2-4, 7:30 p.m.; June 28, 2 p.m.
Where: Thunder River Theatre, Carbondale
Cost: $25 for adults, $17 for 20-30-somethings, $14 for full-time students.
Cold War buzzwords like “balance of power” and “mutually assured destruction” are useful for more than understanding the tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S. of half a century ago. They also, at least in playwright Michael Hollinger’s “Red Herring,” can be keys to a happy marriage.
The surprising, gut-busting send-up of McCarthy-era paranoia and spy games, which opened last week at Carbondale’s Thunder River Theatre and runs through July 4, uses a farcical Cold War yarn as a sort of fable for the institution of marriage.
The play opens with seemingly naive soldier James (David Collier) proposing marriage to Lynn (Sophie Sakson), who happens to be Sen. Joe McCarthy’s daughter, and soon revealing that he’s actually a Soviet spy. He asks her to make a package hand-off for the cause. She responds by screaming “Commie!” but soon gives in, setting off an uproarious tangle of political and personal monkey business that draws the FBI, Soviets masquerading as fishermen and landladies, star-crossed lovers, secret husbands and one nuclear explosion into its web.
The show — filled with sassy, snappy dialogue and quick-cut scenes — gains steam throughout. Even when a gag falls short, as a handful do, there’s another right on top of it that keeps the laughs coming.
Nearly the whole cast doubles and triples up in their roles. Colorado theater veteran Bob Moore, for instance, plays a dead body, a Soviet masquerading as a mute and an emasculated dressmaker’s husband who squeals “Yes Dear!” and scampers around the stage (the show is directed by his wife, Wendy, which perhaps informed its marriage-as-noir spirit well). Collier plays James and a paparazzo and an overexcited coroner festooned with “I Like Ike” buttons in a wonderfully-over-the top minor role. The whole cast — Lisa Langer as a landlady with secrets to keep and Chris Wheatly as a lovesick G-man among them — helps pull off this tricky, fast-paced comedy and all seem to be having fun while they’re at it.
The cast also serves as stage crew, moving around sets and furniture between scenes (there are 20-plus scene changes) and hamming it up for the crowd in the process as dramatic music — like the “Dragnet” theme — blares in the black box theater. Its role-swapping and silly spy games are reminiscent of the marvelous “The 39 Steps,” which played at Theatre Aspen in 2012.
Thunder River has a (not unfair) reputation for doing challenging, serious theater, such as its ambitiously staged “Hamlet” of earlier this year. But it’s not all the 20-year-old Thunder River can do. The company nails the comedy of “Red Herring” and its thick layers of slapstick, physical comedy, clever wordplay, satire and romance.