Witty Kid-Simple meant for thoughtful adults only

By Ethan Stanislawski

It’s hard to write about Kid-Simple, a darkly campy pseudo-epic at the American Theater Company. It’s much easier to listen to it. That’s because the problems the play has in terms of plot, shock value, and humor, it makes up for in the phenomenal exploration of sound—in both its production and intake—that seeps through every level of the play’s structure.

It is not a play in the traditional sense; in fact, Kid-Simple breaks down when viewed in that light. But as an original take on sound, it is pure theatrics at their finest—an approach that couldn’t work on radio or film but for which the stage seems better suited.

Based loosely on a 1940s radio melodrama, Kid-Simple calls itself “a fairy tale for adults”—a fair description, since the Hollywood atmosphere is balanced by references to sex, bestiality, homosexuality, self-mutilation and water torture. That said, the story’s epic, intentionally corny, nature is quite overwhelming.

An especially clever girl, named Moll (well played by Gwendolyn Whiteside), invents a machine called the Third Ear that can hear noises previously inaudible to humans: toenails growing on mice, stomachs churning, even hearts breaking. Moll is seduced by the seemingly dull-witted Garth, who eventually turns out to be more than he seems— namely, a secret agent known as “The Mercenary” whose mission is to steal the Third Ear for his evil employers.

Moll then launches on an epic quest to get back her beloved machine—which, if in the wrong hands, can destroy the fundamental nature of the universe. Along the way, Moll encounters satyrs, soundless cellos, perilous mountains, caverns, and rivers.

As a plot like this suggests, the play could be produced as Pixar’s next project, if not for the mature content. While the idea of creating an R-rated fairy tale seems attractively sinister, this version is unfortunately too over-the-top for that idea to work. The swearing, sex, and violence seem out of place, and most of the play’s child-adult juxtapositions are hit-and-miss (with the emphasis on “miss”).

It doesn’t help that, for the most part, the jokes aren’t all that funny in most cases. To be fair, Kid-Simple, written by 27-year-old Jordan Harrison, does have its merits. Even the most ridiculously over-the-top characters get their fair share of personality. The acting, while it doesn’t require much subtlety, is extremely consistent, and every character moves about naturally on stage, thanks in part to Damon Kiely’s skillful direction and John Musial’s craftily constructed set.

Any mention of the play’s design, however, cannot be complete without describing the unbelievably creative use of sound in this play. Scott Isieri sits in the corner with about every possible tool for creating sound effects and uses them so rapidly and so well that it’s almost unbelievable as a live performance. His effects are correctly balanced by recordings of sounds that cannot be replicated by props like balloons and sandpaper (such as airplanes and jungle cat noises). The list of sound effects, projected in supertitles above the stage, seems redundant at the start but takes on more meaning as the nature of sound is questioned later on in the play.

In fact, Kid-Simple’s plot is at its most innovative and interesting when it questions just what makes sound and what causes us to hear it—especially when sound is seamlessly intermixed with dialogue. Judging by the avant-gardism this idea could unnecessary generate, you can see why the fairy tale format was chosen, and due to the heavy nature of the concept, why Harrison courted an adult audience instead of creating children’s theater. It’s a hard balance to strike, and while the production isn’t totally successful, its attempt is appreciated as the play expands into something much bigger than it at first seems.

If you’re after a serious night of theater or a pure light-hearted comedy, Kid-Simple is probably not for you. But if you’re interested in sound in any manner—whether from a technological, musical, linguistic or even philosophical standpoint—Kid-Simple is an absolute must. And if you’re interested in neither, or both, then Kid-Simple has more than enough entertainment and talent to provide for an excellent, interesting night away from Hyde Park.