Since 1998, a tiny theater collective named Radiohole has been crafting bizarre, chaotic, and wildly funny performance pieces out of their headquarters on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg—in a converted garage called The Collapsible Hole, a stone's throw from what used to be the infamous Kokies. It goes without saying the neighborhood and the world beyond have changed incalculably since the Giuliani era, but Radiohole keeps resonating, despite the apparent disappearance of one of its founding members and the various interruptions of advanced age (needy offspring, desire for health insurance, desire for rent money, etc.). Their latest twisted escapade, an inspired riff on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein finds the troupe as restless and reckless as ever, making an inscrutable mess that's as entertaining as it is elusive.
It's called Inflatable Frankenstein, and I'm pleased to report that the title is taken quite literally by Radiohole, who build the hour-long production toward a coup de theatre that seems to take inspiration from the large-scale bulbous air sculptures of artist Tim Hawkinson, but filling them with a feral crescendo of flashing lights, freaky music and spastic dance. There's always been an element of danger with Radiohole, a sense that they're performing without a net and perfectly comfortable with falling on the audience, breaking a few bones, and laughing about it over a beer. It's somehow comforting to see that after all these years they haven't lost their edge, and still can make an audience member slightly nervous about a giant inflatable monster advancing relentlessly toward his second row seat.
The sixty minutes that build up to that stunning climax consist of an eclectic, at times even incantatory, deconstruction of Shelley's famous novel, which everybody thinks they've read but few actually have. After kicking things off with a faux pre-show talkback that parodies the way theater people get a little full of themselves when talking about their work, Radiohole dives headlong into their stated objective to "liberate Frankenstein from the long shadow of Boris Karloff" and tell the story from the monster's point of view.
The storytelling, of course, is decidedly abstract and non-narrative, and you'll know not to expect a straightforward tale of Boy Meets Monster as soon as you venture into the theater, grab a complimentary bottle Brooklyn Lager, and marvel at the dense, dizzying set, which mixes video projection, random snippets of ambient music and noise, strange steampunk devices that appear to have been plucked from a fever dream, giant atavistic Edison light bulbs, and, high above the stage, a bier slowly oozing an indefinable goop as it slowly descends toward the floor.
On the bier rests Eric Dyer, Radiohole's inimitable co-founder, perfectly cast as the titular monster. His magnificently prolonged entrance culminates with him turning his back to the audience and projecting his hypnotic monologue onto the back of his own enormous Charlie Brown skull. There's something a little unsettling about watching someone's face appear on the wrong side of their head, and this effect is repeated to great effect later in the show, following a daffy TV cooking class about making brains out of the aforementioned goop, which is then stretched over the ensemble's faces like cauls, upon which Dyer's maniacal visage is one again projected.
Sorry if that doesn't make sense, but there's a lot to unpack in this unwieldy, monstrous production, and true to form, Radiohole never take their own ideas seriously enough to come anywhere near pomposity. But their tendency toward meta self-parody is a double-edged sword—any substantive ideas about feminism, science and politics are artfully obscured by digressive layers of iron and vaudevillian post-punk absurdity. One doesn't expect a Radiohole joint to mean something in an academic, "let's write a thesis about it" way, but with Inflatable Frankenstein the underlying ideas remain steadfastly opaque.
But I wouldn't have it any other way—a Radiohole that traded its elusiveness and ambiguity for a more clearly defined and crisply articulated conceptualization probably wouldn't be a Radiohole worth dropping into. That's my way of saying I'm not quite sure what Radiohole's getting at here, but I definitely enjoyed getting there with them. The final destination—a 20-foot-tall inflatable body painstakingly constructed out of shopping bags, plastic sheets and trash—is as mysterious and mesmerizing and hilarious as just about everything that precedes it.
Inflatable Frankenstein, presented at The Kitchen as part of PS 122's COIL Festival, continues through January 19th. The run is sold out, but we're told "there's a waiting list that begins one hour before curtain and folks get in every night."