Play Built Around Radiohead Lyrics Wins Raves

Director Dean Testerman's piecing together of song lyrics yields a coherent story with a potent message.

LOS ANGELES -- A bandaged young man named Thom has suddenly realized that the Karma Police are coming.

Abruptly, he sits up in his hospital bed and fearfully announces that they're on their way, while a doctor and a nurse standing by his bedside affirm his fears.

"This is what you get," they say together in mechanical-sounding voices. "This is what you get. This is what you get when you mess with us."

If the dialogue sounds familiar, you must be a Radiohead fan.

That's because those words -- spoken on the stage of the Hollywood Court Theatre here Thursday night by actors Michael Poulin (Thom), Claire Battersby (Nurse) and Norman Victor (Doctor) -- are lyrics from Radiohead's 1997 hit, "Karma Police" (RealAudio excerpt).

What's remarkable about the play in which they're spoken, "The Untitled Radiohead Project," which just opened a four-week, L.A. run prior to embarking on a national tour -- is that the script, pieced together from lyrics to some 40 different Radiohead tunes, adds up to a coherent story.

The two-hour production is built entirely on lyrics from the British pop-band's three full-length releases, 1993's Pablo Honey, 1995's The Bends and 1997's OK Computer -- as well as from B-sides and album liner-notes.

"I was really struck by how the themes were put together," theater-goer Betsy Lucas, 35, said. "I wasn't sure how it could be pulled off, but it was really a surprising gem."

While Radiohead's lyricist and leader Thom Yorke is solely responsible for every word that comes out of each character's mouth, neither he nor his bandmates have anything to do with the production itself, which is the sole vision of its director, Dean Testerman.

The story that emerges from the pieced-together lyrics is drawn primarily from the subject of OK Computer's "Airbag" (RealAudio excerpt). The narrative depicts a young man named Thom (not based on Yorke but named by default, via a lyric in one of the songs) in the aftermath of an automobile accident that has landed him in a coma. It follows him as he subconsciously examines his life in the face of trauma and technology's dehumanizing impact on the world around him.

Monologues -- in which a single character recites a song's lyrics -- are few and far between; throughout the play the lyrics are used as dialogue between characters, as in the "Karma Police" segment. This tends to work remarkably well: Yorke's often-conflicted lyrics easily translate into coherent conversation and verbal interplay.

"It's very similar to Shakespeare," Norma Loehr, 30, of Los Angeles, said. "It isn't how we speak, but it [heightens] the emotion of the piece."

Loehr, who helped Testerman cast the production, said she was impressed with how the actors interpreted the lyrics, having witnessed their initial attempts. "I was pinching myself the entire time," she said.

There are moments in the play when Yorke's lyrics seem eerily appropriate -- such as in the dramatic final scene depicting the suicide of the character Lewis, played by David Veach. A heroin dealer and former lover of Thom, Lewis first recites the lyrics of The Bends' "Bullet Proof" and then shifts to Pablo Honey's "Prove Yourself." His monologue climaxes with that song's lines, "I'm better off dead. Prove yourself."

Veach and the six other actors who comprise the cast of "The Untitled Radiohead Project" are all undeniable talents. Playing Thom, Poulin (whose sandy blond hair and frail features even recall Yorke) brings out his character's bruised innocence yet still manages to seem appropriately withdrawn.

On the other hand, as doctor and nurse, Victor and Battersby are like a male and female composite of Nurse Ratched, from the Ken Kesey novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in their personification of technology's dehumanizing impact.

In a scene flashing back to Thom's childhood, TJ Paolino, who plays Thom's abusive father, provides a chilling moment in his reciting of OK Computer's "Climbing Up the Walls." As Thom lays sleeping and his mother (played by Elizabeth Cava) hides underneath his bed, Paolino threateningly says, "Either way you turn, I will be there/ Open up your skull, I'll be there/ Climbing up the walls."

This leads to another memorable scene of Cava alone, reciting from liner notes about beef burgers as she dramatically pounds at her husband's untouched dinner plate, at one point squeezing the stuff that's on it -- which appears to be raw beef -- in her hands and letting it drop back to the plate. The scene is as funny as it is indicative of her frustration and pain.

The play also stars April Crowell, whose short part in the second act as the mysterious-character Friend proves pivotal.

The 70-seat Hollywood Court Theatre 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. It's also scheduled to appear at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival in Europe. For information call (213) 368-8980.