Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
For the first time in its history, We Players foregoes offering a play with 30-60 actors that engages audiences interactively outdoors over dozens of acres and instead comes indoors to a quiet hall with a cast of two actors and one musician and an audience who face each other in full light. Heromonster, created and performed by Nathaniel Justiniano and Ava Roy, is less a play with a storyline and more poetry in motion with loose, vague references to the original "Beowulf." The result is always intriguing, often mesmerizing, and at times shocking and startling. The result is also confusing in referents, frustrating to grasp intended meaning, and void of answers to the many questions it raisesall of which could be the creators' raison d'etre.
Two actors, a male (Nathaniel Justiniano) and a female (Ava Roy), enter barefoot and in long, brown capes that suggest a time long ago; but the capes soon disappear to reveal neutral, muslin outfits worn by the Everyman and Everywoman of any and all times. References are soon made to current wars, high tech start-ups, and scientific pursuits, as each tries to inflate his/her accomplishments and to out do the other, and as we infer the time period is both yesterday and now. Poetic lines are recited in echoing fashion directly to audience members while the lone saxophone punctuates the meter with both sustained and staccato notes.
Walking among us, they each say, looking eye-to-eye at various audience members, "So you're a hero ... I thought they were only in poetry." We sense that one of these is tonight's hero (i.e., Beowulf) and one is the monster to be destroyed (i.e., Grendel); but no clues are given as to which is which. Rhythmic movements clearly and carefully choreographed increasingly rise in tension, giving way to physical conflicts that become more and more violent as we go deeper into the evening. Simple items like tablecloths and flowers become weapons that strike with amazing power. "You are what you repeatedly do," we are told again and again, and we watch as they repeatedly fall into mortal combats for no apparent reasons.
Battles come and go intermingled with periods of rest, regaining strength, and seeking sustenance of food and drink. Each is periodically physically shaped into deformation through the spoken commands of the other ("club foot ... hump back ... scales ... fangs"), only finally to be told, "I release you." Each must endure the test of holding one's head completely under water while the other tells in incredibly fast pace a story of heroism, followed by the teller tenderly helping the foe to dry off and recover. All along the way, seemingly random lines of narrative play back and forth that in the end piece together to question who or what is a hero and who or what is a monster. When a final victor does emerge after one last, all-encompassing battle played out on the banquet table before us, there is nothing that indicates justice or merit on one side and evil and deserved punishment on the other.
Nathaniel Justiniano and Ava Roy each perform with an intensity that is palpable and visible in every calculated move made, sweat drop wiped, and grunt or gasp heard. Blows are given and received in the battles that certainly cause audience members to cringe with empathy of felt-pain (even if the pain is not actually felt by the actors themselves). Both actors walk a fine line with expert finesse of engaging directly in authentic ways with individual audience members and then of quickly pulling back into a struggle of epic proportion played out before us but not with us. The commitment of these two actors involves every ounce of their strength, all manners of possible movement, and performances that at times appear out-of-body.
The title of the work as well as the lack of clear good and evil differentiation seems to suggest that the difference between heroes and monsters, good and evil, may often be more semantic than real. This is never made more clear than at one point when the two actors recite, solemnly, convicted murderers' names along with their crimes, their last meal, and the means of their awful deaths by the state. Without judgment, we are left to question not who is hero, but who is monster? The fact that before us each half of the struggle can be both merciless and merciful, both punishing and forgiving, leads us to wonder what is that difference.
Where the analogies get a bit more confusing, it seems, is the choice to make one a male and one a female. Are we to interpret on one level these struggles as an ageless battle of the sexes? Are we to assume the sex that loses is the weaker, the rightful loser to the other's hero? These may not be fair conclusions, but the lack of clear storyline and the predominance of so many vague metaphors and suggestions lead to multiple interpretations, none of which makes clear sense of the total.
Heromonster appears to be a work in progress and an experiment of a new form for an established and revered company. As such, We Players is to be applauded for venturing into new territory and bringing us along for the journey. As an evening where we as audience walk away with new insights about the human condition or ourselves, the piece may or may not work. Perhaps more contemplation over the days to come will tell the final story for each of us that was there.
We Players continues to present Heromonster at the Fort Mason Center Chapel, San Francisco, through November 1, 2015. Tickets are available at http://www.weplayers.org.