by SOPHIE KERMAN
For “Prairie Home Companion” fans who wish that the shores of Lake Wobegon saw a little more action, playwright Eric Webster has the answer for you: Shade’s Brigade, a 1950’s-style radio drama that’s all about adventure. In the role of Jack Shade, Webster has assembled a team of mercenaries (Dave Gangler, Lee Adams, and Shanan Custer) who are currently – as of Episode 3 – on opposite sides of the English channel, in the clutches of Shade’s evil arch-nemesis after having finally out-maneuvered him (or so they thought).
Shade’s Brigade is a fun hour of entertainment. The focus of the experience is definitely on plot, not character development, with each member of the Brigade representing a clear archetype – the stoic Brit, the brash Southerner, the cool-headed leader. But each character is clearly drawn and true to the style of the show, with banter that creates some fun rivalries within the group. As one would expect of a radio play, the voice acting is excellent: last night’s show, for instance, involved both Adams and Custer having conversations with themselves in two different voices, and with your eyes closed you wouldn’t be able to tell it was just one actor.
My one gripe about the plot it is that it doesn’t rely enough on its characters’ own ingenuity to get out of sticky situations. Webster has instead created a deus ex machina character, a spirit named Kashi who appears to warn the group of impending danger. Not only do the references to Kashi make me hungry (I hope the group got a corporate sponsorship for their spirit naming), but they also take away the opportunity for a group of quirky characters to become even more interesting by thinking their way out of danger.
Since each episode is available on the Shade’s Brigade website, you may be wondering if it’s worth seeing live. I’d say it is, especially if you’ve never seen a radio show in action. Watching sound effects being produced is pretty fun and sometimes surprisingly strenuous-looking, and some of the actors’ on-stage expressions (or stifled laughter) add an extra dimension to the listening experience. I enjoyed being able to go back and forth between watching the action of producing a show, and closing my eyes to imagine the story unfolding in northern France. And there’s no need to listen to the previous episodes before you go – the actors will fill in the back story for you at the top of the show. Shade’s Brigade is an easy, action-packed way to spend an hour, and a nice way to get out on a Sunday night without committing too much time or energy.
Shade’s Brigade by Eric Webster. Performances begin at 7pm on August 18 and 25, September 15 and 22, October 13 and 20, and November 10 and 17 at the Jerome Hill Theater, 180 East Fifth Street, St. Paul, MN, 55101. Tickets cost $10 and are available at the box office starting an hour before the show or in advance online at shadesbrigade.com.