LOS ANGELES -- A character named Thom sits in a hospital bed, staring into space with a blank, dreamy expression on his face. "A green plastic watering can," the actor says, reciting the opening lyric to British pop-band Radiohead's 1995 hit, "Fake Plastic Trees." "For her fake Chinese rubber plant."
On the opposite side of the stage, a woman playing his mother is on her knees gripping a green plastic watering can, looking distraught and defeated.
The actors, Michael Poulin (who plays Thom) and Elizabeth Cava (who plays the mother) are rehearsing a scene from "The Untitled Radiohead Project," a play premiering at the Hollywood Court Theater here Thursday night (Nov. 12). The show, which will spend four weeks in L.A. before setting out for performances in major cities across the continent, is built entirely around lyrics penned by Radiohead leader Thom Yorke. The piece appropriates and combines the songs to tell the story of the main character, Thom.
"It wasn't a stretch," the project's mastermind, director Dean Testerman, said. "I think subconsciously [Yorke] created these stories in his mind, and, without even knowing it, meant them to go together."
The characters' lines are directly taken from the lyrics of Radiohead's three full-length releases -- 1993's Pablo Honey, 1995's The Bends and 1997's OK Computer -- as well as B-sides and album liner-notes. Though the main character's name is Thom, he isn't based on Thom Yorke, Testerman claims.
"The only reason his name is Thom is that, when I got to the song 'Lift,' the lyrics say, 'We've been trying to reach you, Thom,' " he explained.
The 29-year-old director said he first came up with the production's concept while attending an audition two years ago. Asked to give a monologue, Testerman spontaneously chose to do the Radiohead song "Creep," the band's breakthrough 1993 hit, which he had just heard on a radio. "When I was done, I kind-of went, 'Hmmm, that was fun,' " he recalled, after dramatically reciting a few of the song's lyrics. "Then it really made me think about how subliminally this stuff hits us."
While Testerman said the song "Let Down" helped him create the characters, the basic premise of the story is centered on two songs, "Airbag" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Subterranean Homesick Alien."
Thom, a young innocent, drives on country streets, hoping to be abducted by aliens, but after a nearly fatal car accident leaves him in a coma, he has to decide whether to return to his body and the life he once knew. From there, Testerman said, the story just jelled, with lyrics from almost 40 other songs -- including "Creep," "My Iron Lung" and "Talk Show Host" -- falling into place.
Testerman, who also is a free-lance journalist, said he told Yorke about using "Creep" as an audition monologue when he interviewed the singer last year. "He was like, 'That's kind-of good, isn't it?' " Testerman recalled, imitating Yorke's British accent. "So I kind-of got his subversive blessing."
The director said he sees the production as a tribute to Yorke and added that he isn't sure when the singer and his band will see it. He did, however, consider asking the bandmembers to perform cameos.
"But that would be cheesy, and this is a dairy-free production," he cracked. "The Untitled Radiohead Project" plans to hit Radiohead's hometown, Oxford, England, next year. Since no original Radiohead music is used in the production, Testerman said he did not seek the consent of the band's label, Capitol Records, nor that of Yorke for the use of his lyrics.
The director chose not to change a single lyric in his production, even including Yorke's primal moaning vocalizations in the actors' lines. However, he said he encouraged his actors to play with the stresses of certain lyrics to heighten or force specific meanings.
"We had to retrain ourselves, the way we look at words," he said. "It was a lesson for these actors, because we tend to get so locked in."
Poulin, 28, who plays the role of Thom, claimed that, prior to taking the lead role, he was only familiar with Radiohead's hits but said he believed in Testerman's vision for the production from the beginning.
"I think the whole thing is just a brilliant concept," said Poulin, who previously has acted in independent films and other theater productions. Taking a break during rehearsal Wednesday (Nov. 11), Poulin sat at a desk in the theater's hallway, his hospital-gown costume covered by the red coat draped around him, and explained, "This is something that's never been done before. It's Dean's story, based on Thom's lyrics, and he's done a great job with it."
"The Untitled Radiohead Project," its director said, is in part a commentary on the modern world's emphasis on technology. "I think that's what the audience will get from this -- the way that we're getting technologically raped -- we're losing ... touch with life," he says. "It talks about the memories that we have from being abused as children, from alcohol, from technology, from drugs, from repressed selves."
The 70-seat Hollywood Court Theater will host the production until Dec. 5, with shows Thursdays through Saturdays. Subsequently, the play is scheduled to appear in Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Toronto, Vancouver, Boston, Dallas, San Francisco and San Diego.