Not your average lecture

Late one evening in 1986, Dan Rather was attacked and savagely beaten on Park Avenue in New York. According to reports, his attackers were two well-dressed white men; they accosted Rather, shouting variations of the phrase “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” Who they were and what they wanted remains unsolved.

Cherry Red Productions’ new play, “Kenneth, What Is the Frequency?” tackles the mystery that has apparently befuddled Americans for close to twenty years. The self-proclaimed documentary-play is the coolest lecture you will ever attend.

“The Frequency,” an essay by writer Paul Limbert Allman, appeared in the December 2001 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Allman claimed to have found a link between the attack on Rather and the fictional stories of a fellow Houston native, the late, great Donald Barthelme. Using excerpts from Barthelme’s irreverent stories and the intertwined histories of the two men, Allman constructed a hilariously flimsy case.

Long-known for more salacious fare (“Poona the Fuckdog and other Plays for Children”), this time Cherry Red put forth a bit more of a straight-faced production. “Kenneth,” co-authored by Cherry Red’s creative director Ian Allen and associate producer Monique LaForce, is an expansion on Allman’s essay.

While the original text is used throughout the play, Allen and LaForce added their research and postulations to the case, driving home America’s obsession with capturing the absolute truth of every situation. This insightful insult works, if only because Allen, LaForce and Allman have proven to be obsessive in every aspect of writing this collective work.

The lecture/documentary format works well. The set is sparse and well-calculated. The narrator (B. Stanley) is a professor type, outfitted with spectacles and a magenta lectern. The narrator’s argument is augmented by three television screens, which show pictures and headings throughout the play. There are five actors who re-enact the essential points of evidence. Melissa-Leigh Douglass, Chalmers Hood, Marcus Lawrence, John Tweel and Kwame Wallace switch roles with stunning fluidity.

Hood and Tweel, who primarily play Barthelme and Rather, adopt amusing vocal affectations that create the perfect contrast between their characters. Hood is breathy, academic and boring, while Tweel … well … sounds a lot like President George W. Bush.

“Kenneth, What is the Frequency” never stops milking the public’s undying need to understand and categorize something, even if the search concludes an incoherent but somehow brilliant mess. In this case, the brilliant concluding mess is a puppet show that is almost worth the wait.

Like any lecture, “Kenneth” requires the audience to have some kind of interest in the subject matter. Whether it be an interest in Dan Rather, Donald Barthelme or the notions of celebrity, snobbery or American ideology, some degree of interest is definitely necessary.

The play, like the essay, is not about solving a mystery, but about making fun of things in a high-brow, straight-faced way.

While the seams between Allen and LaFroce’s research and Allman’s essay are practically invisible, “Kenneth” keeps stomping about long after Allman’s essay is through. Consequently, the play, much like a brilliant but rambling lecture, leaves the audience feeling as though they just sat through something a little too long to be loved completely.

“Kenneth, What is the Frequency?” is playing on Fridays and Saturdays at 11 p.m at the Source Theatre, located at 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets are $15.

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