Frank Theater

Get ready to descend into the absurd -- again -- at the Axiom on McKinney Street. In its coal-black theater on the dark edge of downtown, Infernal Bridegroom Productions is once more tipping the world on edge and asking us all to gaze into the gloom residing in the dark hole of our collective unconscious. Based on the radio programs of Joe Frank, a real-life radio personality The Village Voice has called "the most imaginative, literate monologist in radio," Jerry's World works like a strangely ecstatic tone poem, celebrating the dirty little corners of our contemporary landscape, in which life gets funnier and funnier as it gets "curiouser and curiouser."

Directed and adapted by Troy Schulze, the collage of scenes and monologues -- all of which are either re-creations or recordings of dialogue from the actual radio program -- tumbles together to create a mesmerizing symphony of language, moving from grand, enraged arias to hushed and measured conversations of the most bizarre sort. Several different actors play a character who we assume to be Frank, though the play never explicitly states that this is so. Opening the show with a scalding tirade of anarchy, Kyle Sturdivant's Frank (we believe) rants, "I'm going to kill a little girl in five minutes." He lurches across Kirk Markley's blazing set of silver poles and glass walls, screaming, "We're going to make sandwiches out of her," his wild eyes practically spinning. Leering at the audience, he accuses us of being a "bunch of disco dancers," and we snort and smile as we shift, vaguely uncomfortable, in our cushy seats. We're told to set our "watches for death and sandwiches," which seems just about right, given the rush of words that will rip across the stage over the next two hours.

Folded into the rants are long-lingering moments of disquieting calm. Take, for example, the highbrow-sounding interview between Cary Winscott's Frank and two pornographers, Dick (Walt Zipprian) and Jane (Christa Forster). Dick graduated from Harvard, and Jane from Sarah Lawrence; both have the tight-jawed delivery of intellectual stiffs. But they're discussing their roles in a skin flick called The Moving Instant. Jane observes that the film has feminist leanings since it demonstrates how women are "able to get out of the kitchen, and back into the bedroom where we belong." Dick, who studied clinical psychology, wants to discuss the meaning behind the feather headdress he wears in the film.

Somewhere in between the conversations and the screeds are actual recordings from Joe Frank's offbeat radio shows. The most emotionally gripping is a series of phone conversations between a sad fellow named Jerry and his friends. Jerry spent years recording his own phone calls. When he died, his brother mailed the tapes to Joe Frank, who created a radio series based on them. Strangely moving, the elliptical and very real-sounding talks cover a lonely territory of lost love, desire, mental illness and addiction. The conversations are "acted" out by actors with their backs turned to the audience. Sitting in dusky domes of shadowy light, they cradle phones to their ears and gesture their way through the heartbreaking conversations. The scenes ripple with kindness and a generosity of spirit, creating an evocative and painfully tender effect. Jerry always wants what's best for others, even though he seems incapable of getting anything he needs for himself.

Schulze also has filled the night with rich black humor. Especially wild is (what appears to be) a Frank monologue performed by Schulze himself, who takes center stage in the second act. His inner stand-up comic comes roaring to the surface in a fire-starting speech that's reason enough to see this show. Standing alone, he rails against a world gone cockeyed, with its long lines at the post office, its overpaid athletes and its oversexed teenage dance shows. Schulze comes to a crescendo, wailing, "What's the point of freedom if you don't let it debase you?" This moment slams into another deliciously ironic scene lifted intact from Frank's tapes. A character who calls himself O.J. Simpson's "man friend" tries to defend O.J. He says that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman weren't murdered -- they committed double suicide. Goldman, he reasons, did it for the money.

What makes the show more than just a collection of Joe Frank scenes is the way they're put together: with a sense of the theatrical. Schulze's fine staging is matched by Markley's moody lighting and futuristic set, both of which strike a perfect balance between the aloof chill and the strange intimacy of radio. The soundtrack, which comes directly from Frank's show, is filled with subtle gray shifts that feel urgent and ominous at once. And there's a cumulative effect from the juxtaposition of scenes that makes for some elegant theater. Taken together, the tender and wickedly funny scenes even convey a social message: "Most people are doing the best they can." Troy Schulze has reframed Frank's radio work into a piece of surprising and supple humor. Though the writing is lifted from the radio show, the arrangement is all Schulze's.