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Heart to Heart

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There’s just something about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il that’s funny, despite everything. Yes, he’s a cruel, ruthless, humorless, and possibly insane tyrant who’s guilty of heinous crimes against humanity and the deaths of probably tens of thousands of innocents. But that hair, those glasses, that belly, that round little head … the combination of awkward physical attributes and genocidal impulses makes him a perfect target for ridicule and satire. Trey Parker and Matt Stone know this. So does David Letterman. Apparently, Jon Taie also knows it.

Kim Jong-Il figures heavily in new theatre company Safety First’s recent radio drama The Coffee Shop Killings, which writer/director Taie and a team of seven local actors presented at the College of Charleston’s John Rivers Communcations Museum the past two weekends. The show, a madcap comedic puff piece set (naturally) in a coffeehouse, is a throwback to both mid-20th century serialized radio programs like the BBC’s Goon Show and the short comedy sketches of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

Taie’s story, such as it is, is a lot longer on one-liners and puns than plot: A succession of kooky characters in a coffee shop — among them a breathy, airheaded beauty named Flower (Tara Denton), an Inspector Tigernutts (Eli Hollifield), a patron named John (Evan Parry), and a “filthy, smelly, waffle-munching hippie” named Bongo Boy (a hilarious Reneé Fincke) — crack wise when the stoned bongo player turns up dead and engage in a half-assed “investigation” of the crime. Along the way they wrestle with romance, poison, mistaken identities, coffee, and lots of creative sound effects, given life by Taie on a low-end Casio electronic synthesizer.

Safety First’s four 30-minute performances took place in a tiny second-floor room of the Communications Museum, where the white-shirted actors stood elbow-to-elbow before a small audience and a phalanx of microphones, taking turns stepping to the mics and invoking the show’s many characters, as well as those of the three “sponsor” ads for Kim Jong-Il tea (“For the dictator in you”). Off to one side, Taie punctuated the proceedings with a grab-bag of electronic sound effects — doors slamming, footsteps, kisses, bongos, explosions, whistling teapots, roosters crowing. The result was as much a visual experience as a purely audible one.

“I like the format, since it allows a lot of creativity on the part of the actors, but it’s a different kind of creatvity, since it’s voice work,” Taie observes. “The difference in viewing and listening to the show is interesting. It’s almost two different shows when you hear it by itself and when you see it being performed.”

The comparative ease of production and low technical demands make a show like Coffee Shop Killings far more practicable to mount than the standard straight play, and a lot less costly. Admission for Taie’s production was on a donation-suggested basis, and $3 earned audience members an edited CD recording of the show once they’re available.

“Rehearsal time is short, and we don’t have to worry about memorizing lines or costuming or building a set,” Taie notes. “With the right preparation and the right actors, we could throw up a production in a week. It’s very inexpensive to produce. With just a script and good actors and some recording equipment, you get a lot of entertainment value, a lot of bang for your buck.”

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