Even before the pandemic, radio dramas were experiencing an unlikely renaissance. In the 1950s, many Americans traded their radios for television sets, but in the 21st century, thanks to changes in technology, an entertainment form that had been all but left for dead was suddenly back en vogue. Soon, fictional podcasts grew huge cult followings and attracted big-name stars, making this once-antiquated medium a bona-fide trend.
You might not have predicted it back in the 90s, but Plan-B Theatre can officially say they were ahead of the curve. This Salt Lake independent theater has been producing audio dramas for 25 years, including yearly partnerships with KUER’s RadioWest. This year, their decades of experience paid off unexpectedly as social distancing requirements have made normal theater performances impossible. Adapting to the times, Plan-B’s 2021 subscription series is made up entirely of audio dramas, available through “pay-what-you-can” tickets online. And while these may not be the productions the company initially hoped for, P.G. Anon, the first play in their audio-only season, naturally continues the company’s tradition of experimental, boundary-pushing performances. Welcome to local theater’s new normal—10 home recording studios across six ZIP codes, no cozy blackbox theater and audiences across the state enjoying the show through car speakers and headphones.
Billed as “a tale of fear, fury and reproduction,” P.G. Anon, a world premiere by Julie Jensen, contains three short acts centered on different women’s pregnancies. Pauline (April Fossen), who already has more kids than she can handle, is distraught to be pregnant late in life: “People see someone my age pregnant again and what do they think? They think of two old farts going at it,” she bemoans. Tiffany (Emilie Evanoff) has a troubled history with substance abuse, poverty and violence, and her pregnancy only makes these challenges more dire. And for teenage Sheila (Sydney Shoell), an unplanned pregnancy both limits her dreams for the future and illuminates the pervasive sexism around her.
P.G. Anon is set in three tumultuous years of recent American history: 2016, 1996 and 1991. In each act, characters listen and react to the day’s headlines with a mixture of disgust, rage, bemusement and resignation. I won’t spoil the specific news events that each narrative is tied to—though you may be able to guess if the 2020 news cycle hasn’t permanently ruptured your cultural memory—but each one is carefully chosen to represent the characters’ own reproductive anxieties and our country’s twisted relationship with sex, power and consent. I also won’t reveal the specific directions the stories take, or the exact connections between each of the characters, which is one of the narrative’s biggest reveals. Jensen’s vignettes are more interested in tone and character than tidy conclusions, though, taken as a whole, the three acts create a satisfying emotional arc.
The exact setting is never specified, but the details, from widespread religious conservatism to Trump-loving relatives to families with an eye-popping number of children, certainly fit the state we know and sometimes love. (Jensen, like all of Plan B’s playwrights, is based in Utah.) Jensen’s explicit references to historical events place the characters in a clear social context, and the subject matter alone is politically charged, especially as reproductive freedom and maternal ambivalence remain taboo subjects.
Still, the most memorable aspect of P.G. Anon is the production’s unique format, which allows the actors and creative team room to play and explore. Without a set, lighting or costumes, Sound Designer and Director Cheryl Ann Cluff and Sound Engineer David Evanoff are integral to the production. The pair included clever, simple production details: scene transitions are marked with a rhythmically ticking clock; interstitial news alerts interrupt and comment on the plot; sound effects like revving car engines mark changes in setting. The cast, most of whom are Plan-B regulars, have an added challenge relying on only their voices. (A four-person ensemble—Latoya Cameron, Lily Hye Soo Dixon, Tamara Howell and Tracie Merrill—plays characters both named and unnamed in all three acts.) Even with these limitations, the performances still make an impact. Shoell is a particular standout, bringing an authentic vulnerability to her role as a teenager searching for guidance after an unplanned pregnancy. Pandemic-inspired creativity may have changed how audiences experience Plan-B, but this hybrid of audio and theater proves that the company’s strengths—local detail, diverse voices and intimate storytelling—are still intact.