Review: Wraith Radio by Bottle Alley Theatre Company
by Michael Meigs

Todd Clark, Cassandra DeFreitas (Flashbax23 Photography)Chris Fontanes's parable Wraith Radio portrays delirium and last hours of an injured soldier isolated in some dark time and place. The work debuted in a shabby warehouse in South Austin in 2016. The playwright's ragtag Bottle Alley Theatre Company was born in an equally devastated punk locale in 2012, and they've crept from one found venue to another since—proof of the ingenuity and dogged determination of DIY theatre makers.


The 2016 Wraith Radio brought Fontanes his moment of breakthrough into the consciousness of the Austin theatre community. This lengthened 2023 version materializes in yet another unique venue. To the audience's satisfaction, it's one that could have been specially constructed for this script.


Even the name of the place  is intriguing: the Pink Flamingo Plant Company. It's relatively hard to find. Access is via a short, rutted gravel track that departs McNeil Road southward not far from North MoPac, between a couple of restaurants. Beyond several long tent-like structures stands a large rectangular latticework structure. The interior is carpeted with artificial turf.  


This time "Wraith," the protagonist  identified only by her call sign, has more air and space. She can just barely glimpse the night sky through the walls and ceiling. A tentative breeze might reach her through the hot night air.


Fontanes's scripts focus on mystery, witchcraft, and death. Those themes and the stagecraft gained over more than a decade have earned him recognition, notably from Austin's Vortex and from the Archive Theatre. For Archive he's directing a script woven from verse works of Edgar Allan Poe, to debut in September. 


Bottle Alley works are not caviar to the general; they're guilty pleasures for the few. Audiences are small and self-selected, mostly friends of company members. Two exceptions, the evening I attended: CTXLT (me) and a member of the B. Iden Payne Austin theatre awards committee, living up to the BiP motto "We See Everything."


Three  uniformed  warriors in bug-eyed gas masks march in close intimidating drill into the performing space, then post themselves  in corners. One by one they become visible as they shed those grotesque masks. A black-suited figure with a scarlet pocket flash joins them. The soldiers seem not to see him, but their bodies quiver and obey his gentle hand motions. Left alone at a console at the center of this almost-outdoor theatre-in-the-rectangle is a slim, dark-haired figure. She fiddles with buttons, leans into a microphone, speaks into cyberspace. "This is Wraith, Wraith Radio . . . are you out there?"


The hundred minutes that follow hold enigmas for us. What is this conflict? Who is Wraith? And who . . . or which . . . of the other shadowed figures before us are wraiths . . . or realities?


Monologues and dialogues are delivered in rambling, discursive style. The playwright and adapter/director Trace Turner have crafted vivid lines, clearly  intenional, that the actors deliver casually, thoughtfully, almost improvisationally, lending an aching reality to their uncertainties. Turner's careful, subtle blocking of movement between the files of seats along two sides of the rectangle keeps us engaged with them as the story develops.


Cassandra DeFreitas (Flashbax23 Photography)


Cassandra DeFreitas, present in the playing space almost all the time, carries the heaviest responsibilities of the parable. Her Wraith is weary but unwilling to abandon hope. Her mood shifts as she lingers in her dark purgatory. At times, especially when broadcasting into the constant silence, she's quietly cynical; other times, especially as she engages with fellow soldiers, there's energy, wistfulness, even humor.


Devin Finn, Cassandra DeFreitas (Flashbax23 Photography)Unless I'm mistaken, much of the expansion of this script comes in the roles of her comrades. Rosemary McGraw, code name "Star," limping from a leg wound, is an apt foil; Devin Finn as Jessie, loping and a bit loopy, perhaps maimed, is soon revealed to be Wraith's intimate partner, for she dwells incessantly on their single, perfect day at a beach. Both secondary characters are fully drawn and convincingly realised by the actors. Finn's confusion and earnest simplicity are touching; there's an electric moment in the final scene when his mind clears and he straightens up to signal reassurance and the way out of Wraith's dilemma.


Oddly dapper in these shadows is Todd Clark as the unnamed figure of Death. He's wordless at the outset and then disappears for most of the rest of the action. Upon reappearing, he's calm, quiet, and patient. He offers a warm, friendly hand and a choice. Is he, too, an apparition? It would be be reassuring to believe that at the end of days, as hope dwindles, there's an equally benevolent Charon to welcome us and accompany us past the dogs of war and existential agony into the unknown. 


Turner's 2023 edition of Wraith Radio expands the 2016 concept by providing more ample backstories, delivered in a style both fantastical and naturalistic. Because so much is meditative, at times it seems too slow; careful trimming could help. The reveals, when they come, are well foreshadowed and satisfying . . . if, that is, yielding to the void can ever seem satisfying to those still quivering with life.



Click to view the Bottle Alley Theatre program sheet for the 2023 Wraith Radio.


Wraith Radio (2023)
by Chris Fontanes, Trace Turner
Bottle Alley Theatre Company

June 16 - July 02, 2023
Pink Flamingo Plant Company
7221 McNeil Drive
Austin, TX, 78729

( Flashbax23 Photograph)June 16 - July 2, 2023

Fridays - Sundays at 8 p.m.

Performances will take place at Pink Flamingo Plant Co (off McNeil next to the Water Tank bar). There is free parking in the lot.

The event space can be found by walking past the gift shop all the way down on the left side. We recommend that you use Google Maps and not Apple Maps as Apple Maps does not reliably take visitors to the right location.


Tickets are $17.85 via Eventbrite, service fee included, available online HERE.