Donnie and the Monsters
nytheatre.com review by Hannah Gold
September 3, 2010
Donnie and the Monsters, written by Robert J. Gibbs, brings to light all the things that go bump in the night. Directed by Heidi Grumelot, the show takes place both within and without the barely-adolescent mind of Donnie (Richard Altmanshofer), a shy yet sensitive child who does his English homework days in advance and has a rather hyperactive imagination. Unfortunately he is not so beloved at school and, to make matters worse, is incessantly followed by Ellen (J.B. Rote), an obnoxiously loud and clingy girl who no society-climbing elementary school student in their right mind would be caught dead with. She also has an imaginary friend who is an exact replica of herself only with butterfly wings and feels no reason whatsoever to hide this fact, which is quite awesome of her. He is also acquainted with a pirate named Black Beard (Yury Lomakin) who was betrayed by his scurvy landlubber of a crewmate and now seeks revenge in Donnie's very neighborhood. It seems, however, that Donnie is the only one who can see said pirate—he, like many other characters in the show, is an illusory symptom of Donnie's growing pains.
Donnie, alas, has worse problems than a clingy girl who insists on wearing striped knee-high socks and a nonexistent (but plenty metaphorical) pirate. Paul Herbig plays Tommy, child potentate and reigning popular boy with a potty mouth to boot. This prepubescent tyrant with a penchant for scatology bullies Donnie to no end, even resorting to nicknames such as "butt nugget," which sufficiently humiliates the pacifistic daydreamer. Tommy's behavior seems typical and harmless at first, but soon the situation takes a turn for the worst when he begins to threaten Donnie with physical violence (among other things). Tommy also, it is important to add, has an extreme anal fixation and many monsters of his own. Perhaps the funniest scene in the entire show takes place when the king of junior high teaches the toilet (which he imagines has come to life and is begging like a puny kid with lunch money not to be sat on) a serious lesson by perching upon it and proceeding to use the facilities.
Donnie seeks solitude and answers to his rapidly changing life in several inanimate objects, and in creatures born from his own imagination. The first of these is his TV, aptly named Mr. TeeVee (played by the rubber-faced Mathew Wise who dons a cardboard frame around his head and seems proficient in just about every stereotypical accent). Donnie flips though the channels at a frantic pace hoping to find a program with a suitable solution to all his new-found angst, but the TV is too hyperactive and insubstantial as it rushes at breakneck speed through popular personalities. Then, when Donnie goes to bed, another phantom of daily life appears in the form of a cachinnating sock puppet (Herbig) who likes to pick on all of Donnie's nagging insecurities. He is relentlessly vicious, sarcastic, and takes great pleasure in laughing at the poor boy's pain and humiliation. Basically his personality stinks like, well, an old sock.
Late at night however, when the puppet goes limp and mercifully becomes just an ordinary sock on Donnie's floor once more, another creature suddenly comes to life. This is the most blood-chilling beast of all—the monster who lives under the bed (played with sharp teeth and heartwarming bravery by Wise). At first he seems to be a vicious monster who would gladly eat Donnie should he set so much as a toe onto his floor. It is only later that we find out the monster is, in fact, a coward who is afraid to leave the bed. The monster, though he is just two green laser eyes and a pair of grasping claws, ends up being perhaps the most real and human character in a very poetic turn of events. He is the physical manifestation of Donnie's fear, but also of his patience and heart. Toward the end of the show the monster becomes downright sagacious, even doling out advice to Donnie. "There are worse things than monsters," he says, "they will eat you up."
Visually the show is equivalent to a masterful children's picture book, one that is dark and fanciful and written by Tim Burton perhaps. The core of the set (designed by Ariel Schecter) is just a murphy bed coupled with a table and a few chairs at times, but the odd and wonderful creatures that lurk behind every corner and in every crevice truly bring the stage to life. On this stage we are confronted with the world as we see it daily, bitterly poignant, filled with beasts, boys, and dodgeball during middle school P.E. class (oh the humanity!). And yet the set also houses within it (and under its bed) another universe entirely, just as human, and just as filled with monsters. This is the hauntingly familiar, fantastically imagined netherworld, born from all of Donnie's hopes and fears. It is a realm of dreams that gives faces to the faceless and often frightening realities we come up against every single day.
What Gibbs has offered us is a show that reveals intelligently and charmingly that the monsters that dwell in our closets and under our beds when we are children lurk elsewhere too throughout our lives. Donnie and the Monsters is a production of true vision and hopefulness, which demonstrates that even the greatest monsters of human nature have reason to fear.