THE FRIEND IN THE DARK
Did you ever drive alone across a big, flat stretch of country at night? You and your headlights and the asphalt spinning beneath like a long speckled treadmill – in a certain state of mind it’s easy to see the world as an Earth-sized ball rolling under your wheels. Maybe you’ve had some coffee or bennies, possibly a joint. The one must for this particular trip, though, is the radio. You’ve listened to all your music, and anyway, you’ve reached that moontime period when you really just need to hear someone talk.
Any long trip is a drive away for part of it, and a drive toward for another part, but always, if the trip is long enough, there’s a moment when you don’t know where you are. You’re lost. You surf the crashing static, looking for a landmark in the dark. You wish you hadn’t smoked quite so much. No stations out here; there’s a ghost of Jimmie Rogers, but you can’t quite tune it in. Is that Patsy Cline or Ernest Tubbs? You’re lost alright. Maybe there’s a signpost up ahead – hey. A voice! A clear voice, talking! He says he’s broadcasting from a lost moon of Jupiter. Well, at least one of you knows where he is.
You’ve tuned in to Jupiter Jack’s all night free-form radio show, Lost Moon Radio, featuring philosophy, tunes, and lots of what he calls “found sound,” coming to you this time from KBRK, the California State University Burbank public radio station. See, Jack’s not really a space cadet, just a longtime American DJ with no permanent base. But then, he’s not really that, either. On a certain plane of existence, he’s only a character in one of the best live musical sketch comedy shows you can see.
A staple of the Los Angeles comedy scene for three years now, the Lost Moon Radio troupe presents its Episode 12, themed and titled Night, as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Many Fringe offerings seem awfully mainstream, but this troupe remains brilliantly weird. It’s hard to imagine a show with a guy in a booth “spinning records” performed by five actor/singers standing at mike stations, backed by a five-piece band (The Moon Units), while a Sputnik 2-sized globe wanders overhead to mark the time – well, it’s hard to imagine such an act playing stadiums, or getting its own TV show. Thank God.
Like a lot of cabaret acts, this works largely because of the intimate relationship between performer and audience. Sometimes there’s an almost spookily personal quality to the sound of a DJ in your ear. Ken Nordine, Jim Ladd, Joe Frank – when one of these guys is in the groove, you know simultaneously that it’s just for him, and that it’s just for you. This quality is at work when Jupiter Jack (Will Greenberg, alternating with Galloway Allbright) relates his evolving state of mind over the course of a long night at the controls. It’s just the two of you sharing a secret. The other people in the audience aren’t really there at all, and if they do intrude, it’s to provide an enthusiastic reinforcement of your own experience.
That experience really can be spectacular, if that word applies to a mostly aural experience. Lost Moon Radio is probably tired of comparisons to The Firesign Theatre, but all entertainers of this caliber glow when stood against the general run of Los Angeles self-promoter. Take Dylan Ris, Moon Unit guitarist. And Lost Moon music director. And songwriter. And sketch writer. The most remarkable thing about him, in reference to this company, is that he may not be its most talented member. The cast (Jen Burton, Lauren Flans, Ryan Harrison, Martha Marion and Dan Oster) writes the material it acts, sings, raps and sometimes dances, without a weak sister in the family. (Mr. Ris and Frank Smith also contributed writing for this show. Music by Mr. Ris, Rich Ramberg [keyboards], Mikey Wells [drums], Mr. Harrison, Mr. Smith and Ms. Flans. Ross Craton plays woodwinds, Brenton Kossak bass.)
The material includes sketches on how not to get a camper to go to sleep, what’s wrong with National Public Radio, and why never to play truth or dare without a “pass” option. Songs include a day in the life of a terrible driver and a manic ode to a red-eye flight to Newark, rapped by two sickening passengers looking to hook up en route. The writing is mostly strong, but the excellent performances make even weak material tolerable – and yes, there are a couple of less-than-stellar pieces, including an unfortunately placed final number about 24 Hour Fitness that one wishes had been stacked elsewhere in the program, if it had to be included at all. But again, professional execution (under the smooth direction of Sam Roberts) excuses much. The killer band misses not a trick, and Mr. Greenberg, not a show regular, was so in-control as Jupiter Jack that, having never previously seen any version of the show, I got the impression that every idea had really come out of his head.
The trouble with a show this enrapturing is that when you walk outside afterward, you’re outside. It’s like being born once more into a mean, shitty world – following all that polished encapsulation, Santa Monica and Vine made me want to crawl back into the womb. Perhaps as a remedy, The Moon Units are performing late-night live band karaoke from 10 pm to 1 am after the June 23 show.
Episode 12: Night
Lost Moon Radio at the Hollywood Fringe Festival (Los Angeles Theater)
scheduled to end on June 23, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.lostmoonradio.com