Monsters In The Wood
nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
August 8, 2008
Brad Lawrence calls Monsters in the Wood, his one-man, precision-sharp skewering of his Ozark roots, "A Comedy About Death." At the start of the show, he places us in a funeral parlor featuring not one, but two caskets containing relatives, one of whom is reposed with enough Harley-Davidson regalia to make the casket look like an HD gift shop. Turns out, he never even owned a bike. Candid, scathing little jewels like this are revealed about family member after family member, and a shocking number of them do not make it to a ripe old age as the stories lace and interfold—when you live in a small town in southern Missouri, you will appear as a principal character in the lives of most everybody in town, and with the fairly limited marrying pool, most likely as a relative.
If you haven't guessed, Brad Lawrence comes from "rednecks." It's the term he uses—these are not gentle, rocking-chair-on-the-porch yarns about crazy good ol' boys. For one hour on a bare stage, he has nothing but his dry, harrowing sense of hubris to hold the audience, and he is fascinating unquestionably. There is no twang in his voice, except and only upon the instant he flashes it on with the harsh authenticity of someone making a point. Humor is his primary angle throughout, but the edge of it demarcates a deeper, darker place of alienation—an unwillingness to hygienically sieve hypocrisy and baseness out of his family's tragic story details, and a gritty acceptance that total escape from his origins will never be possible.
Lawrence, under the deftly light director's touch of Burke Heffner, uses only the bare minimum of lighting and staging to set up details—the focused emphasis of his perspective paints a perfect picture in our minds. As he walks us through the funeral parlor packed with family members who have brought beer inside successfully, but not other prized possessions ("You will NOT bring those dogs inside!" his mother is forced to command one funeral attendee), he maintains a hilarious detachment that skillfully sets this show beyond many solo stage memoirs I've seen in Fringe festivals past. Audiences at such shows are often unable to match the performer's earnest fascination with his own life, as though having a life story were somehow unusual. Lawrence, in contrast, knows when to stay out of the way of his own narration, and allow his characters to be more prominent than himself. It's the mark of a seasoned storyteller. Even when he reveals how his own identity was formed by a youth amongst such people, he does so with humility, using humor to stay in relation to the audience. The journey he leads is not intent on celebrating his own specialness, but on captivating through its everyman, "stranger in a strange land" quality—a Gulliver's Travels of the Bible Belt.