The Emperor's New...Monsters!
nytheatre.com review by Wendy Remington Bowie
June 6, 2010
The Emperor's New... Monsters! is the fourth episode of Monster Literature, produced by Mainspring Collective and the Brooklyn Lyceum. Monster Literature tells the continuing adventures of Benjy Bleeglehorn and her sidekick Bravo Kirkwood as they stop the evil wizard Zorlan Morlan from using his powers to rewrite monsters into great works of children's literature. In this episode, Benjy and Bravo meet up with Hans Christian Andersen to save his "Emperor's New Clothes" from Zorlan Morlan's dastardly meddling. As they set out on their adventures, Bravo tires of being a sidekick and decides to set out on his own. The evil Zorlan Morlan preys upon Bravo's need to be seen as awesome in order to trap Bravo in the stolen story, establishing him as the emperor of the imaginary Bravotown, a place where anyone who is found to be not awesome is subject to banishment, and supplying him with an entourage of monsters. A new monster enters Bravotown promising to make Bravo a suit of armor (complete with a laser module) that not only will be awesome, but that only awesome people will be able to see, making it a piece of cake to tell who is awesome (and can be Bravo's friend), and who is not. Though Bravo and his monster entourage initially fall for the plot and pretend to be able to see this imaginary suit, Benjy and Hans Christian Andersen finally help them to believe in their own awesomeness by knowing what they're good at, accepting the things for which they need to ask for help, and believing in themselves. Zorlan Morlan's plot is foiled and another great work of children's literature remains safe from his evil machinations.
Although this is the fourth episode in the series and it was clear that there was a full back story, as newcomers we had no problem hopping right into the story. I appreciated that the company set clear expectations for the children's behavior from the outset—participation is encouraged and they should feel free to chime in. The space is very accommodating for kids with rows of seating and a set of mats on the floor for those kids who want to be as close as possible. This seating arrangement allows for a few kids to change their seats and get a little closer to the action as they get more comfortable.
It is clear that this company is skilled at creating theatre for children that meets them on their own turf, and as an added bonus, as a parent I found the performance genuinely enjoyable as well. This is not a kid's script with clever one-liners thrown in for the parents' benefit—the story stands on its own and the bits that are funny are simply, truly funny. During the story, the message was is broken down into clear sound bites that are reinforced several times, making it easy for kids to take away. I appreciated a great deal that their ultimate message is nuanced and real—they acknowledge outright that truly believing in yourself rather than relying on others' opinions is sometimes the harder route to take, and even our heroine Benjy had moments of self doubt.
Aaron Scott as Bravo plays a loveable, approachable hero to whom the children easily related. It was impressive to watch Jenna Weinberg as Benjy Bleeglehorn and Alessandro King as Hans Christian Andersen drive the story along while simultaneously and seamlessly each working in a style appropriate and believable to their character without a hitch. Candice Goodman, Maya Baldwin, and Mark DeFrancis create a trio of unique, personable, and dimensional monsters. And Owen Scott as Zorlan Morlan is a simply delightful and hysterical villain. The design and direction create a distinctly cartoon atmosphere and the company effortlessly skips between styles and conventions of cartoons and kids television to recreate a rich, stylized world in real time. The streamlined set and props cleverly sketch out the world of the play, which make it an effortless endeavor (even as an adult) to fill it out with one's imagination.
Monster Literature is intended for ages 5 and up and the kids in the audience at the performance we saw ranged from about 3 to 10 years old. The message might be too advanced for littler kids (it didn't quite convey to my three year old) but it was totally engaging start to finish for the kids across ages in the audience and it creates a fantastic venue to introduce kids to performance. Samirah still talks about meeting the actors after the performance. Bravo was the focus of this episode, but the team of Benjy and Bravo make Monster Literature equally appealing to both boys and girls. And it's always great to see a self-confident, capable heroine.
Overall, this is an inexpensive and lovely way to spend an afternoon. I know that we'll be staying tuned for the next episode.