nytheatre.com review by J Jordan
May 8, 2010
Monster is a show about a little boy who axes his father. He also cauterizes his father, and, interestingly enough (I guess) feeds him over a holiday weekend while the unsuspecting next door neighbors have a barbecue. We find this out through various little details, the kind that make such a story the stuff of legend, or in any case, what makes one gruesome act different from another. This story would run in the newspapers, the scandal blazing in the headlines. This story was the talk of the town—not just of the tabloids and gossips, but the blossom of urban legend that local kids would obsess over in the schoolyard until the next tragic thing pushed it—or them—in front of oncoming traffic.
This particularly grizzly father-son story is, in part, told by one such youngster, the next door neighbor who was innocently hating his own family at yet another holiday barbecue when the tragedy occurred in his neighbor's basement. The kid at the barbecue didn't hate his family enough to take an axe to any of them, of course, so what made the weird kid next door do it? That question is basically the premise of Monster. It's the kind of tale that is told in the dark, one that actually begins in the dark, and one that is also told by a creature from the dark. The silence at the beginning of Monster is calm, peaceful, and blissful, until the loud music and blaring lights reveal a man who might as well be Satan himself. Turns out, he sort of is.
Avery Pearson, who brings to life this dark, foreboding storyteller—let's call him Mr. Dark Side—does a fine job of slipping into the skin of the weirded-out neighbor kid, the axe-wielding neighbor kid, and various other doomed souls. I say "slips into the skin" because when Pearson moves from one person to the next, or back to Mr. Dark Side, it's creepy. And it's supposed to be. Whatever dark being Pearson is truly—the great reveal he saves until the end—is not a good thing, and that is obvious. Even less comforting is how something inherently evil can so easily assume the persona of someone who on the surface seems to be good—the neighbor kid, the recovering alcoholic, the alcoholic's pushy girlfriend to name a few. These characters are all saved from being glib caricatures by Pearson's craft, as well as that of his director (Steve Cook, who provides excellent and seamless control) and writer (Daniel MacIvor—thanks for keeping me up at night). We're also saved by their infusion of dark, yet sharp humor.
These characters, different as they may be at first, all fit neatly into the same story. As each tale is told, as each person starts to unravel, Mr. Dark Side pulls those frayed strings and weaves them into something distasteful that as a result is also supposed to be compelling. The concern here is that, having been to horror movies, or even having read the morning paper—they seem to cover the same topics these days, no?—I found myself waiting, proverbially and rather literally, for the axe to fall. It does.
One seeming non sequitur of inspiration, however, comes from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting poor Al, the recovering alcoholic, is attending, along with several other assorted characters. There's a guy whose greatest idea is stolen out from under him, there's poor Al, and there are the people whose names you don't remember but are exactly who you encounter at such meetings. Since Al is attending the meeting, the audience assumes there is hope for him, for his girlfriend—she REALLY wants a baby—and maybe even for Mr. Dark Side. OK, maybe not him, but for all the humans in the show. I can't share with you whether or not that holds true, as it would ruin the fun. Despite the great performance by Pearson, the excellent storytelling the bold direction, Robin A. Paterson's thoughtful lighting, and the punctuated but spot-on sound, something wasn't sitting right with me.
There's this horrible murder. Horrible. All the lives we meet in the show are somehow related to it. We care about these people with the exception of Mr. Dark Side, who, even so, holds our rapt attention. Everything is articulated quite well. What was unsettling to me—you know, aside from some kid axing his dad—was why this story was important to tell. It was done more than to scare me. Scary you can get from actual headlines, no Mr. Dark Side necessary. No, more was being explored here—the idea that the audience wanted to hear the gory details of the murder, that we wanted to know what would happen next, and our inherent desire that something bad would happen to the people whose tales were being woven together.
Mr. Dark Side essentially claims to be that desire and seems to indicate he is inside all of us. If that is true, then we can easily understand what makes one kid actually pick up the axe one day. But what about the other kid, the one who maybe only thinks about it? Have fun debating this, and try not to be too creeped out.