As part of their digital events series during the Covid-19 period, Touchstone Theatre is offering “deep listeners of the Lehigh Valley and beyond” an absurd, hilarious, and suspenseful radio play called “Iso/Nation Presents.” The radio play is part of Touchstone’s “Fresh Voices” program and is made by Sean Patrick Cassidy and Adam Ercolani, Touchstone Theatre’s 2019-2021 Apprentices/MFA Students. Two episodes of the four-part series are currently available for your listening pleasure, while the other episodes, originally set to be released in June, are currently postponed so as to create more space for important conversations regarding racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Iso/Nation Presents” plays with fiction and fact and revolves around an approximation of our world even as their reality is a bit more strange and uncanny. Two reporters, Sean and Adam, tell the story of the 55 days that the country stood still through the eyes of residents of a small Pennsylvania town called Christmas. The series’ small town feels eerily like the Bethlehem we know and love as we follow the community through a situation much like the coronavirus lockdown. Still, townspeople in Christmas face crises even more absurd than the ones that we face during our version of the pandemic and quarantine. For example, in Episode 1, the town of Christmas faces a border lockdown and an internet and communication blackout, which thoroughly cuts them off from the rest of the world. In Episode 2, fringe conspiracy groups emerge and begin to protest the lockdown, wildfires start devastating the edge of town, and finally, the reporters have their evidence for such crises stolen as their recordings go missing. Ultimately, the radio play is a study in what human populations might do in the face of being cut off from the rest of the world. Indeed, the show encourages listeners to think about their story as a case study since there is a nearby Professor who studies human responses to crisis and is a little too delighted to see the perfect opportunity for his theories to be tested in Christmas.
While the show clearly parodies the intense human responses to constriction of freedom and lack of government communication that we see in our contemporary moment, the highlight of the series is by far its absurdist humor. While the episodes entertain listeners through suspenseful cliff-hangers, which continuously obstruct information to heighten the mystery of the show, much of the drama falls flat purposefully, and bleeds into the absurdist tone of comedy. Because the approximation to our current historical moment is clear, the radio play allows the listener to see our pandemic and responses to it as no longer just scary and tragic, but also deeply strange and unnatural to the maintenance of human community. Moments of comedy also act to critique our society. In one instance, the reporters have gone to eat at an “instagram-fusion restaurant” where meals come with an instructional card on how to best aesthetically arrange the meal for the optimal instagram photo. In another moment during the blackout and lockdown, every adult over the age of 40 begins to have “spontaneous simultaneous sneezing,” but because “no one blesses anyone anymore” everyone ignores this phenomenon. Such details shift the listener’s perspective towards the impact of focusing on social media presence above community values. While residents obsess about their status online, they miss out on the opportunity to attend to the well-being of neighbors and to promote the health of the community.
“Iso/Nation” also plays with absurdism in their depiction of advertising. During the first episode, the “producer” offers details from their sponsor, the United Watermelon Farmers of America, who makes a plea for both recognizing that watermelon are more than a summer food, and to donate to watermelon farmers who need chiropractic help. Those watermelons are mighty heavy after all! In a similar way, Episode 2, offers a look at a company called “Nom-Nom-Namaste,” which offers lessons in cooking while you do yoga. These ads poke fun at the niche elements of our consumer society, and the creative ways that people are attempting to make money, but they also highlight an economic system that forces individuals to go to such extremes because of globalization and the lack of worker protections in our society.
Finally, Episode 2, introduces a musical element. The reporters encounter one of the leaders of the protest in Christmas, Meredith Wilson, who is also a middle school dance teacher and general busy body. Meredith, true to her namesake, breaks out into a special adapted rendition of “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man. This Meredith Wilson stirs up trouble by complaining about the amount of lanternflies in Christmas, which at first seems inconsequential, especially when she brushes over implications of infectious disease, refusing to answer the reporter’s inquiries. In fact, spotted lanternflies are an actual agricultural danger in eastern Pennsylvania, so the absurdity of concern in the song flirts with a real danger, though the singer seems to distinguish between spotted and non-spotted lanternflies. Ultimately, the big to-do about lanternflies in this song and performance seems completely abstracted from the question of lockdown and blackout, which is the trouble that the citizens of Christmas are really facing in this world. Will the question of lanternflies actually play a role in the resolution of this radio play? Based on the fast pace and the sporadic interludes characteristic of each of the existing episodes, listeners can’t be sure.
These first two episodes of “Iso/Nation Presents” set up a delightful and ridiculous world that in serious moments hit close to home and reveal new ways of thinking about our Covid-19 pandemic reality. The next two episodes will surely deliver more ludicrous laughs and moments of parody for deep consideration. In the meantime, we should follow the creators’ lead and take time to consider who else we should be listening to, and reflecting with, in order to not only make sense of the pandemic, but also our society’s reckoning with racial injustice.