“Life in the 413” – the new normal

  • Sam Rush, left and Frank Aronson supply sound effects for New Century Theatre’s “Life in the (413),” which this years riffs on the aftermath of President Trump’s election. Courtesy of Bill Dwight

  • Performers in last year’s edition of “Life in the (413),” New Century’s revival of old-style radio theater, with short plays set in the western Massachusetts zip code.  Image courtesy of Bill Dwight

  • Monte Belmonte, DJ and program host at WRSI-FM/The River, serves as emcee for “Life in the (413).” Courtesy of Bill Dwight

  • Playwright and dramaturg Harley Erdman, a professor of theater at UMass Amherst, is one of this year’s contributors to “Life in the (413),” which riffs on the aftermath of President Trump’s election.  JERREY ROBERTS/GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Jeff Olmsted leads the a capella group The Wise Guys, one of the performers for “Life in the (413).” — Image courtesy of Sam Rush

  • From top, Teen rockers Kalliope Jones; Jeff Olmsted leads the a capella group The Wise Guys;” chamber-pop specialists Winterpills will perform at “Life in the (413) Saturday at Northampton’s Academy of Music. Courtesy of Sam Rush

  • Chamber-pop specialists Winterpills perform at “Life in the (413)” on Saturday at Northampton’s Academy of Music. — Image courtesy of sam Rush

  • The Expandable Brass Band will serve as the “orchestra pit” band at “Life in the (413).” Courtesy of Sam Rush

Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2017

Has life become a little more unsettled for Valley residents since Donald Trump became president? After all, he won just 25 percent of the vote in Hampshire County last November, while Hillary Clinton won 68 percent.

And since taking office, Trump’s done any number of things — vilified Muslims and immigrant groups, announced plans to gut environmental regulations, dismissed any notion his multiple business interests conflict with his presidency — that have set teeth on edge for many in these parts.

But if that’s the case, several local playwrights are determined to find the humor in the situation — to zero in what they call “the new normal” of life in the Trump era.

On Saturday, New Century Theatre opens its season with the return of its popular production, “Life in the (413),” short radio plays designed to celebrate — and spoof — life inside the western Massachusetts area code.

The plays, presented in the format of old-time radio theater, with live music and sound effects, serve as a fundraiser for New Century, which has started 2017 on unfamiliar ground. After being based at Smith College for 25 years, the theater group is looking for a new home, and it’s also presenting “Life in the (413)” at Northampton’s Academy of Music for the first time.

Booking the academy, where the plays will be staged Saturday at 7 p.m., is certainly a challenge, says New Century Director Sam Rush, given the theater seats 800 people, twice as many as the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts at Smith, the group’s former stage.

“There are certainly more seats to fill,” Rush said in a recent interview. “But I think the space you’re in can really add to the flavor of the show.”

In that sense, Rush added, doing radio theater, which had its heyday in the 1930s and 40s, in a multipurpose theater dating to the 1890s “is a nice fit.”

Along with five new plays for “Life in the (413),” now in its sixth season, a number of area bands, including Winterpills and the Expandable Brass Band, will provide musical interludes before and between the radio-style skits, each about 10 minutes long.

Meantime, Rush and Frank Aronson will provide a host of sound effects — from barking dogs to ringtones to mooing cows — and Monte Belmonte of WRSI-FM/The River will serve as the event’s emcee.

The new normal

Though Rush says “Life in the (413)” began without any specific theme — other than the plays taking place in this region — the production “sort of evolved” from its first few years. One year, for instance, he asked playwrights to consider setting their pieces in different towns in the region “so we’re not all making fun of the crosswalks in downtown Northampton.”

Trump’s election, though, seemed to call for a more specific response, Rush said, and not just because he had little popularity in this region.

“He wasn’t expected to win — that surprised a lot of people,” he said. “And over the last few months, it seemed to be on a lot of people’s minds.”

At the same time, “Life in the (413)” is designed to be light and entertaining, and so Rush and New Century Theatre board members didn’t want playwrights to turn in anti-Trump polemics. Rather, they should use the opportunity to look at the humorous side of life in this new era.

“We all still have to get up in the morning,” said Rush. “Life goes on. That makes the idea cohesive.”

The plays

Harley Erdman, a professor of theater at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is contributing to “Life in the (413)” for the third time. A dramaturg and theater scholar who’s writes in a number of styles, Erdman, in his new radio play, “Emotional Support,” slyly invokes Trump’s role in one woman’s very bad day.

The unnamed character, who’s seeing a new doctor for follow-up treatment for a leg journey, is perplexed, then disturbed by the physician, Dr. Blitzstein, who has an off-key bedside manner and a few other weird characteristics (aside from his memorable name).

Things go from bad to worse, and the woman cries out “What the hell has happened to the world? Nothing is normal anymore! Our country is run by an orange clown, there’s crazyass stuff in the news every day ...”

“I wanted to play with the idea of people just feeling on edge and kind of out of sorts,” said Erdman, who noted that Saturday’s production is built on the concept of audience members coming together for therapeutic laughter — even taking part in a collective primal scream.

In “Don’t Forget to Breathe,” Northampton playwright Meryl Cohn also riffs on the Trump dynamic, as Jasmine, a 50ish woman, shows up at the Northampton house she once shared with her former partner, Jen, who’s taken up with a younger woman, Lucy.

When Jen asks Jasmine why she’s returned, Jasmine says “We agreed that if the world ever went to hell in a hand basket, I could come back.”

Says Jen: “But this is not what we were talking about. There’s no apocalypse.”

Jasmine: “What do you call the current administration?”

The other plays take a more oblique approach to the issue or tackle subjects that have also become part of “the new normal,” like people’s obsessive use of cell phones and other digital playthings.

In “Jody Through the Google Glass,” cowriters Kelsey Flynn and Hilary B. Price have Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper confronting downtown streets overrun by Pokemon characters and runaway cows from Smith Vocational High School — the latter because Smith Voke students “are more interested in playing Farm on Facebook than tending the real farm.”

Meantime, “The Unfriended,” by New Century co-founder and playwright Jack Neary, offers something of a variation on “Who’s on First?” as four women bob and weave during an absurd, four-way cell phone conversation.

And in Phil O’Donoghue’s “An afternoon at McD’s,” 17-year-old Melani, who has a job at a fast-food joint, must deal with numerous headaches, like having her Hampshire-College-grad father berate her for working at “this corporate, carnivorous hellhole.”

“Oh, God,” moans Melani, “why can’t I just have normal parents like other kids, who ignore me, resent my youth, and want me out of the house?”

In addition to the plays and the music, the 2017 version of “Life in the (413)” has one more trick up its sleeve: an original song, “The New Normal,” written by Jeff Olmsted, musical director of The Wise Guys, an a capella group that performs at the show. The song will have its debut there.

“We think it’s a pretty good show for some pretty interesting times,” said Rush. “We want people to come and see it.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazette-net.com.

“Life in the (413)” takes place Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Academy of music in Northampton. Doors open at 6:30. Tickets are available at www.aomtheatre. com or www.newcenturytheatre.org.