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Frankenstein's Monster

February 15, 2008

The website of the New York experimental theatre group Elevator Repair Service features the following useful description of the term "devised theatre": "In its simplest definition," the website says, "devised theater refers to work done by a collaborative group whose members come together in a room and create a piece, in the concrete sense based on found objects and given circumstances, and in a more abstract sense on ideas and images of interest to the artists involved."

This method of creating theatre can be very powerful as the work of companies like The Wooster Group and Forced Entertainment have consistently proved over the years. At it's most startling, devised work is capable of taking the audience into territory often beyond the ken and comfort zone of regular scripted plays.

But there are drawbacks. One major pit that devised theatre-makers frequently fall into is an inability, owing to the particular intensity of the collaborative environment and typically long development period, to step outside of the deeply-immersive process and see the monster that's been created for what it truly is.

Such is the problem facing FoolsFURY with its first ever devised theatre production, Monster in the Dark. Developed over more than three years in collaboration with novelist, short story writer and novice playwright, Doug Dorst, Monster tells a dystopian story about a group of individuals struggling to survive in an oppressive regime -- one in which the mere thinking of unsanctioned thoughts is enough to get a person locked up or, in the play's slang, "vanished."

Though this is well-trodden thematic territory, Monster certainly shows off the San Francisco-based company's considerable physical theatre talents not to mention director Ben Yalom's inventive mise-en-scene concepts. The production flickers with engrossing scenes and wickedly inventive moments.

In one of my favorite sequences, a prim, lilac-loving schoolteacher, Miss Huddleston, played archly yet sweetly by Beth Wilmurt, finds her mind wandering in unorthodox ways while reading what's supposed to be a nice, comforting little story about some goats to her young students. In a strange, dream-like sequence, she ends up perched on the banister at the side of the auditorium, crawling and sliding up and down the smooth wood while exchanging words with an imprisoned poet. Yalom blocks this scene crisply and the words and movement dance together in quirky harmony. And then it's suddenly over and Miss Huddleston is back in the classroom finishing off the goat story.

The performers' physicality also comes to the fore in the second half of the play, when the characters all find themselves marooned in a leaky hut following a massive, land-engulfing tsunami. Curling up their bodies, the actors become waves, tossing and cradling other characters around on the briny. Evocative stuff.

Yet for all the wizardry that's gone into creating Monster, this Frankenstein could use some reigning in. For one thing, at two and half hours in length, the beast is at least an hour too long. The play moves repetitively around the same ideas over and over again and makes excruciatingly slow progress through the narrative. Repeated motifs are central to giving a devised work its structure, but there's way too much emphasis on treading familiar symbolic, physical and textual turf in this play. There's only so much watching actors parade around the stage with umbrellas and clanking little stones together an audience can take. It doesn't help matters that through 99% of the play, we are forced to listen to a brain-drainingly monotonous recorded soundtrack that's so insidious in its buzzing and hydraulics that it makes us want to run out screaming. The relentless staccato rhythm of the episodic structure similarly becomes tiring after about an hour.

The other chief problem with Monster in the Dark is the writing. Though there are one or two memorable lines in the play (I particularly like "If you don't cease and desist, you will cease to exist") it takes itself altogether too seriously. Furthermore, the drama comes across as a derivative mish-mash of other famous dystopian works of literature. The slang of A Clockwork Orange and the lousy weather of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? both find themselves echoed in Dorst's text.

Then there's the heavy-handed symbolism. When a massive tidal wave crashes over everyone's heads an hour and a half into the story, we quickly grasp the message about the disasters -- both natural and manmade -- that cause fiefdoms to fall. This would seem like a good place to end the play. After all, you'd imagine that a wave that size would wipe everything off the face of the earth. But, we're dismayed to discover, it's only the intermission. Monster persists in pulverizing us by pointing out the parallels between the world of the play and our own in the second half. By the time it's all over, we've barely any space in our brains left to recall that we felt quite engaged during the first half.

If foolsFURY ever attempts to create a piece of devised theatre again (and I think the company definitely should) Yalom should think about employing the services of a fearless and trustworthy dramaturg. This would need to be someone unafraid to lobby for major cuts whose opinion Yalom would respect. Perhaps one day the company will be able to create beautiful monsters without letting them run amok.


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