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Local play pokes fun at politics, consumerism, and media

Photo: Randi B. Hagi, Artwork: Alex Dorney
Tim Wiggins (left) and Jake Gerl are the creators of a new radio play called "Help! My Baby's a Rat!"

A radio play written and produced by two Harrisonburg creatives premiered at Court Square Theater last weekend. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[sound of people talking]

An excited crowd of more than 100 people spilled into the theater on Sunday evening for the premiere of "Help! My Baby's a Rat!," alternate title – "An Ad for Everything and Everything in an Ad."

Randi B. Hagi
Patrons buy concessions at Court Square Theater before the start of the show.

The show is a radio play, running a little under an hour in length. Writer Tim Wiggins, of Third Story Studios, explained the premise.

TIM WIGGINS: I like to describe this play as the sounds of a guy watching television on the day the world's ending. He comes in, he sits down, and he starts channel surfing, and for the most part, he's watching a program called "Help! My Baby's a Rat!," which is about this suburban couple from, like, a 50s sitcom whose newborn baby spontaneously turns into a giant rat … but at different times throughout the play, he starts changing the channel.

The performance did feature some minimalist visual elements on stage – a man slumped into an armchair under a dim floor lamp, gesturing towards a static-filled TV screen. But the magic lies in the audio, with the sounds of distinctly stylized commercials, dramas, comedies, and news broadcasts leading you through a surreal, fast-paced comedy.

This satire, while advertised for audiences 16 years and older, should be rated E for everyone – as in everyone can get it, from politicians –

Randi B. Hagi
Nevin Zehr played "the watcher" onstage.

SENATOR: How may I stonewall you today? [audience laughs]

… to advertisers, media outlets, and protesters. Here's an excerpt right after the latter have, literally, 'flipped a house.'

PROTESTER 3: Public protests are like a, whatcha call it, a social barometer! Indicating frustrations of folks unable to voice opinions through formal channels!

PROTESTER 1: Then, if the issue is trivial and divisive enough, [audience hoots] we'll blow it out of proportion, and we might end up on TV! Yeah!

PROTESTER 2: No, we don't do this to get on TV. We do this to make a difference in the community and to solve problems.

PROTESTER 3: 'Sright! Wait, what's the problem, again?

PROTESTER 2: Well – [pauses] – I mean, you're mad, ain'tcha? [audience laughs]

Co-creator Jake Gerl was in charge of the show's audio production.

JAKE GERL: It's very layered, and so we have a lot of faux ads in there, and a lot of load-bearing fourth walls that get smashed and broken in various ways. … That was actually one of the cool, creative challenges for me, was shaping that audio so the person would get this aural image of what's going on. Oh, this person's on the left – oh, this is happening kind of in the background, foreground.

Randi B. Hagi
Gerl and Wiggins greet friends before the premiere.

As the TV watching character flips through channels, Wiggins and Gerl lampoon many different types of media, and the salacious and consumerist content that captures so much of our attention.

ADVERTISEMENT: [children laughing in background] Now with two scoops of sun-dried raisins! Mmm! And berries! [flips channel]

BROADCASTER: Murdered at birth – but where are they now!? [audience laughs]

Wiggins first wrote the narrative as a short story in 2016, before adapting it into a script for audio.

WIGGINS: The Firesign Theater is a big influence of mine. It was one of my Dad's favorites, and they would just do wild, wacky stuff, and just audio. So I think we were trying to chase the cool stuff that you can do just in that medium. … You can write anything. All you have to do is make people imagine it when they hear it.

The audience was here for it.

SHOW HOST: The toxic kumquat rescue march – [flip]

COOK: Get some spicy tuna, and – [flip]

ACTOR 2: Jimmy, look! My crimson boil is pulsing! [flip]

ACTOR 3: Y todos – [flip]

Randi B. Hagi
A group of friends and family dressed up with stuffed baby rats to celebrate the premiere. From left: Janice Kennedy, Pat Kennedy, Lallon Pond, Emily Wiggins, Jane Wiggins, Kathy Roletter, Julie Foster.

ANNOUNCER: [suspenseful music] Picture, if you will, a dimension of imagination unrepressed by the bounds of logic – where the limits of reason and self-interest intersect. A world of shadow and superstition, where the truth is as obscured as it is maddening.

It's Fox 5 News on the hour.

[audience cackles, claps]

Before the premiere, Wiggins was concerned about what kind of reception it would get.

WIGGINS: What I'm really nervous about is indifference. If people hate it, that'll be fine. [Gerl laughs]. If people are like, "this is so stupid! It's the worst thing ever!" I'll be like, "well, at least I got a strong reaction. A strong reaction is good.

What some in the audience told me as they filed out of the theater would probably allay those fears ...

BRANDON KELLEY: It was amazing! Like, so many little things. I wish I could listen to it more and more to catch all the things that I missed.

NAILAH: I've never seen anything like, you're actually listening and having to imagine everything yourself, but I did appreciate the commentary, so it was funny and interesting and odd. [laughs]

WILLIAM DOMONOSKE: Rapid-fire jokes.

JANICE: So rapid fire … his crazy genius!

KATE BEAN: I said it was life-changing. … The energy was so new and interesting and exciting.

The full show is available for free on Spotify, and Wiggins and Gerl are already thinking about scheduling more performances.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.