The Hey You Monster: Pokin the Bears in a Zoo
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 28, 2008
[Note: The Hey You Monster is in two unrelated parts. This review deals with Part 1, Pokin the Bears in a Zoo.]
Derek Ahonen's new play Pokin the Bears in a Zoo almost feels like a mashup of Sam Shepard, Tracy Letts, and Harold Pinter. As these sources/antecedents should suggest, it's about an extremely dysfunctional family, though unlike the ones typically found in works by those three gentlemen I named, the Sternos clan actually really cares deeply about one another, although sometimes they show it in scary ways.
The patriarch, nicknamed Sheep-suit, is a retired NYC cop who has not gotten over the murder of his wife, which occurred a year ago when she was stabbed at a bodega. The trial of the accused murderer is ending just as the play is starting, and because the evidence against him is largely circumstantial, there's a strong possibility that he may not be found guilty. Sheep-suit has therefore set a plan in motion to ensure that a kind of justice is meted out: he has coerced Forrest Marlow, a younger cop who is a de facto family member (his mother abandoned him after his father killed himself; the Sternoses subsequently raised him), to kill the presumed murderer's brother.
Sheep-suit has two sons. The elder, James, is at least in some ways slow; he's coping with his grief by creating a standup comedy routine filled with unfunny, macabre jokes about the killing of his mother. The younger, Glenn, is a hopeless drunk. Glenn is missing for most of the first act, but when he returns—and shortly thereafter reveals the principal reason that he's given up on sobriety—the play really shifts into high gear.
The other member of the Sternos household is Jojo, Glenn's wife. All of the men in the play, with the possible exception of James, are in love with her (though the possibility of Sheep-suit acting on his latent urges always feels pretty remote); Forrest's desire, though, fuels a good deal of the conflict in the play.
The strength of Ahonen's play is its remarkable naturalistic dialogue and plotting. Though the events of Pokin the Bears are the stuff of tragedy (Greek and otherwise), the characters feel authentically ordinary and their actions and reactions feel organic: Ahonen is challenging the audience to consider just how far they might go if the incalculably terrible things that have befallen this family happened to them instead. As in his last play, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, Ahonen is prone to excess, and there is stuff that could be cut to make the piece tauter and more focused. But his talent as a playwright is very impressive.
Ahonen is also the director, and the world he creates is convincing indeed, benefiting greatly from the dingy realistic set by Alfred Schatz and Matthew Pilieci and effective lighting and sound design by Keecia Buster and Bart Lucas, respectively. The five-member cast is uneven, though, with the strongest work contributed by Pilieci, who is thrillingly believable as the very troubled son Glenn. Craig Peugh (James) and George Walsh (Sheep-suit) are also fine in their roles, and the three of them have an excellent chemistry that makes it easy to accept them as blood relatives. Walsh's voice, though, seemed to give out long before the play was over (at least at the performance reviewed). James Kautz works hard to make Forrest as authentic a presence as the Sternos men, but because so much of what we know about him comes at the very end of the story, his efforts are challenged somewhat by the script. Rochelle Rae Mikulich is problematic in the role of Jojo, offering a performance that feels one-note and shrill.
But the energy of the ensemble is indisputable, and the numerous fight sequences (uncredited) are in-your-face and packed with knuckle-biting verisimilitude. Pokin the Bears in a Zoo is raw, visceral theatre that engages the gut and the brain, and marks The Amoralists as a young company to keep paying attention to.