It begins with a clap of thunder and a plunge into darkness, a traditional theatrical clue that something bad is about to happen.
Yet in David Grieg’s The Monster in the Hall, receiving its local premiere via Inis Nua Theatre Company, we somehow know we needn’t worry too much. This is due in great part to Apollo Mark Weaver’s scenery, which has delighted us from the moment we enter the theater. Crisscrossing above our heads are clotheslines with all variety of garments and more hanging from them; two square platforms that overlap jut out from the playing space, each with an appealingly ragtag assemblage of furniture and tchotchkes.
Sure, there are tell-tale signs of dissolution. Shoved underneath the platforms are crushed beer cans and empty pizza boxes, suggesting less than fastidious housekeeping (not to mention nutrition that won’t earn any gold stars). Still, we sense that lives in this house are infused with imagination and love.
It may seem odd to start a review with the scenery, but Weaver’s is so good as to merit it. More than that, it proves a perfect metaphor for a show that, for better and worse, traverses back and forth between grim uncertainty and twinkly charm.
Since I’m a theater critic—a breed known for dwelling in Stygian gloom—I’ll start with grim. Duck (played by Claris Park) is 16-year-old Scottish girl whose life is no bed of roses. When she was only three, she lost her mother in a motorcycle accident (Duck, whose name is short for the motorcycle brand Ducati, still has traumatic flashbacks). Her father (Doug Durlacher, especially good) has MS, which means good periods and bad—right now is sort of in-between, meaning he’s ambulatory but suffering temporary (we hope) blindness. As for which takes care of the other, it’s an open question, one that a social worker’s visit will soon put on the front burner.
Oh, did I mention that it’s a musical? Well, maybe not quite a full-scale musical, but there are several funky, funny songs, composed here by Jamison Foreman, who also performs in the ensemble. A fourth actor, Eleni Delopoulos, is particularly droll in multiple character roles.
This is all quite a lot to take in. It certainly keeps the actors busy, since they not only exist as characters conversing through traditional dialogue but function as narrators who step outside the action and become omniscient, sometimes moving between the two in a matter of seconds.
Initially, I was captivated by Monster in the Hall. Grieg’s ability to find humor and hope in a dire family situation is surprising in a play that comes to us via the usually edgy Edinburgh Fringe, but hey—real life is harrowing enough right now. It’s nice to have something to enjoy.
But an hour or so into the 95-minute show, both the script and Claire Moyer’s energetic production had moved too far into winsomeness. This is always a challenge with plays that have a young protagonist (Monster is really Duck’s story), and indeed I began to think this is really not a play for adults but rather for teenagers. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the show doesn’t seem to be marketed that way. The final half-hour or so is chaotic, and the madcap antics feel forced. The actors all throw themselves into the action with awe-inspiring gusto, but the needn’t try so hard to be winning; they are winning.
I’m sure many audiences will love Monster in the Hall, especially young people. It’s not a traditional childrens’ show for sure—there are sexual situations and salty language—but the overwhelming message is very positive. For myself, I’m on the fence. I simultaneously admire Inis Nua, whose work is often so edgy, for trying something different. But I wish it weren’t quite so frothy. Surely there’s a tone somewhere in the middle?
Monster in the Hall runs through October 21. For more information, visit the Inis Nua website.
Categories: Criticism, Philadelphia, Theater, TICKET/PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE
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