For lots of people who grew up in the 1960s and '70s, the Firesign Theatre ranks right up there with the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Its surreal, stream-of-consciousness comedy — in classic albums like Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers and I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus — amazed many a late-night listener to the free-form FM radio that flourished in those days.
Some 40 years later, members of Firesign are still doing theater, and it will be on display this week in Agatha Christie's The BBC Murders. It's a production of four Christie plays written for the BBC — Butter in a Lordly Dish, Three Blind Mice, Personal Call and Yellow Iris — staged by Ruth Eckerd Hall at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater.
"What we've got here with Agatha is a combination of all the media we've worked with," says David Ossman, one of the four Firesign founders who, with his wife, Judith Walcutt, adapted the radio plays for the stage. "It is radio, to some extent. It is fully theatricalized, with sets, costumes, lights, music. We have projections. We're doing very elaborate sound production. It has all of the theatrical trappings, if you like, and the radio aspect of it is that people do have scripts and they are on mike."
Zev Buffman, CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall, hooked up with Ossman and Walcutt when he was running a performing arts center in Kentucky and presented a mystery writers festival. They did the Christie plays for the first time there in 2009, but the version in Clearwater is more elaborate. It's central to Buffman's strategy to make Ruth Eckerd an institution that produces works that will tour. Agatha Christie's The BBC Murders will go to the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale in January and February.
"I've always been intrigued by radio," says Buffman. "What we're doing is taking radio and giving it a cinematic dimension."
Lost for 50 years
Ossman and Walcutt have been making "long form radio dramas" since 1985, and their resume includes notable productions of The Red Badge of Courage and a 50th anniversary broadcast of The War of the Worlds for NPR.
"What we do is a blended form of using film, stage technique, radio technique," Ossman says. "The sound installation is the overriding, defining element in this show. You're surrounded by sound that creates a totally believable environment. It allows your imagination to create the spaces you're in. No one will have seen this kind of production before, I promise you."
Buffman secured rights to the plays from the Agatha Christie estate and its president, Matthew Prichard, grandson of the mystery writer. They "were produced ONCE ONLY in pre- and post-WW II years in London," Buffman says in a program note. "The plays, presented then by the BBC, were lost for more than 50 years. The precious plays went astray during the rebuilding of London. … Dusty, yellowing manuscripts, with actor's notes scribbled on the sides. A real treasure!"
Ossman and Walcutt took the old plays and worked them into a production that features two in each act. They developed an Agatha Christie character to narrate the piece.
"The four plays needed something to pull them together," Ossman says. "So Agatha Christie sets everything up. The production is like a one-woman show about a writer, but in miniature, because it is devoted to getting us from one play to the next. We got the material for the one-woman wraparound from her autobiography."
Christie was wildly prolific — her estate says that her works rank third, after those of Shakespeare and the Bible, as the world's most widely published books — and best known for thrillers with sleuths Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple.
"The thing about Agatha Christie that Judith and I have discovered in working with this material is that she is really good," Ossman says. "She may have gotten repetitious because she worked for 50 or 60 years, but her plotting, her characterizations are rich and effective and wonderful for actors to play."
Agatha Christie's The BBC Murders has a cast of 16 that includes another Firesign member, Phil Proctor. Among his many voice roles, he was Rocky Rococo in the group's Nick Danger, Third Eye series and Principal Poop in Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers. In the Christie mysteries, he plays Poirot in Yellow Iris and smaller roles in the other plays.
"A benefit of audio theater is that actors can play different parts, and you can show off your versatility," Proctor says. "We add to that costumes and makeup so that we can really create distinctly different looking characters. Poirot is going to have a wonderful mustache."
Proctor's wife, Melinda Peterson, plays Agatha Christie. Other cast members are Gary Sandy, known for his role as Andy Travis in the hit sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, and Amy Walker, an Internet sensation for her YouTube video (more than 8.2 million views) in which she demonstrates 21 accents in one take of just over two minutes.
Agatha Christie's The BBC Murders is presented like a radio show. The sound design includes such effects as an archaeological dig in Iraq and a railroad station in London. Broadway composer Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) wrote music for a jazz band to play in a cabaret scene.
“You're watching these performers really act as if they are in movie," Ossman says. "Our general direction to the actors is: You're in a movie. This is a closeup. Give us everything you've got. What we're really concerned with is the vocal qualities and the characterizations through voice."
If the alliance of Buffman, a consummate producer of commercial theater, such as the famous pairing of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Noel Coward's Private Lives, with a counterculture icon like the Firesign Theatre seems improbable, he begs to differ. He points out that during his career he has produced such subversive acts as Second City, the Chicago comedy troupe, and Paul Sills' Story Theatre on Broadway.
"I've always thought of myself as a renegade producer," he says.
The ties between Buffman and Ossman and Walcutt extend to Whidbey Island, in the Puget Sound north of Seattle, where the couple have lived for 25 years and the producer also has a house. Ossman and Walcutt's son, Orson Ossman, is in the cast of Agatha Christie's The BBC Murders, as is Buffman's granddaughter, Cassie Post.
This past year has been tough for Ossman and Proctor because fellow founding member Peter Bergman died of leukemia at 72 in March. "It was a terrible blow," Proctor says. "It was Peter's radio show in L.A., Radio Free Oz, that really got us started." The fourth Firesign member is Phil Austin.
Since getting together in 1966, Firesign had remarkable durability, continuing to develop their brand of audio theater in between hiatuses. The group's last show before Bergman's death was last year in Portland, Ore. Ossman is often asked if they were stoned while performing.
"No, man, we weren't on acid when we were doing it," he says. "We always called ourselves surrealists. Surrealism and psychedelics are very close."
Indeed, their influences ranged from avant garde European artists — Jean Cocteau, Marcel DuChamp and Samuel Beckett are among Ossman's personal heroes — to American comedians such as Stan Freberg, Bob and Ray and Ernie Kovacs.
"It has been quite a trip," Proctor says. "We started in the '60s, and now we're in our 70s."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.