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Monkey Adored

Also see Sharon's review of The Dinosaur Within

Monkey Adored
Justin Okin, Amanda Mauer and
Edward Tournier

Sometimes you get the feeling that a play reads better than it plays. This might be a particular phenomenon with a world premiere—perhaps the show needs to go beyond the workshop phase to really figure out what works and what doesn't in front of an audience. And so it is with Rogue Machine's world premiere production of Henry Murray's Monkey Adored.

It should work, and I bet it reads great. The play itself is both smart and clever. It deals with themes of love, lust, instinct, worth, revolution and sacrifice; and it does so in an allegorical world of anthropomorphised animals who love, have sex, question their place in the universe, and have philosophical debates, all under the foreboding shadow of "the lab," where the humans can take them at any moment for brutal experimentation. Amidst all of these deep thoughts is sprinkled a heavy dose of comedy, both in witty animal puns and in a sex kitten character who is written to be played like Madeline Kahn in full Mel Brooks mode (or, more accurately, "Mew Bwooks mode"). (The cat in question is even named Madeline Kahn.)

And yet, it doesn't work—at least not entirely. None of the sex-kitten-with-a-speech-impediment business worked for me, although whether the failure is attributable to Murray putting that type of comedy in a play in which it didn't belong, actress Amanda Mauer giving a performance that doesn't meet the bar set by the real Ms. Kahn, or me just not digging that sort of comedy, it's hard to say. Honestly, it is probably a combination of the three.

There's so much here that does work, though, I almost want to recommend the show just for the attempt. The production features three completely committed performances—and when a committed performance requires making monkey noises and clambering up a rope, that's saying something. Edward Tournier plays the monkey in question (Sonny Bonobo) who, having just been released from the lab, is looking for some hot monkey sex with, well, anyone who is interested. And since Tournier gives Bonobo a healthy dose of charisma (even better, charisma that sometimes gets broody when thinking back on the lab), there are plenty of takers—including the Madeline Kahn kitty. Brown Spot, a sweetly loyal dog, longs for actual affection from Bonobo, but will settle for what he can get. At the performance reviewed (the role is shared), Justin Okin played Brown Spot with such earnest hopefulness, I very nearly wanted to scratch him behind the ears. And then there's James Rat, the passionate revolutionary (posters proclaim, "Resist the lab! Paw Power!") who frequently talks in rhyme and speaks of his rights as "a rodent American." Patrick Flanagan is delightful here, both when he goes off on a rhyming manifesto, and when he's trying to seduce Madeline Kahn with a simple, "Here, kitty, kitty."

The "Here, kitty, kitty" is part of what makes the writing here so delicious. Murray clearly has something to say about instinct; but it's much easier to illustrate when his characters are animals who can't help but behave in the way nature programmed them. So, Madeline Kahn can't resist the "Here, kitty, kitty" call any more than Brown Spot can resist chasing after a thrown ball. Another exceptional part of the writing is Penguinito, a minor character who spouts aphorisms (often seemingly out of context)—but you've just gotta love a guy with pointy boots and a big yellow nose who says things like, "The illusion of free will is present in every moment." The writing doesn't always sparkle; sometimes it seems unnecessarily crude. But just when you think Murray needs to come up with better ways for his characters to talk about intercourse, James Rat shows Madeline Kahn a "piece of tail" that is an actual piece of his tail, and all is forgiven. (Also, points for "What would Mickey do?" and Flanagan's deadpan delivery of the line.)

But, overall, the piece doesn't entirely gel. Sure, the Madeline Kahn business is a big part of the problem, but the penultimate scene might have made a more impactful ending than the actual final scene, and there is some stuff at the end about radiation that might be more than this already idea-heavy play can handle. Still, Monkey Adored is a thought-provoking piece that stays with you—and a play I'd really like to see the next version of.

Monkey Adored runs at Theatre/Theater in Los Angeles through November 20, 2011. For tickets and information see www.roguemachinetheatre.com

Rogue Machine presents Monkey Adored by Henry Murray. Produced by John Perrin Flynn, Matthew Elkins and Edward Tournier. Scenic Design & Costume Design Stephanie Kerley Schwartz; Lighting Design Dan Weingarten; Sound Design Joseph "Sloe" Slawinski; Projection Design Adam Flemming; Puppeteers David Combs and Linda Hoag; Original Music Michael Wells; Graphic Design Stephen Runningen; Assistant Scenic Design Hazel Kuang; Technical Director David Mauer; Production Manager Amanda Mauer; Assistant Director Brenda Davidson; Stage Manager Ramon Valdez; Directed by John Perrin Flynn.

Cast:
Penguinito, Mr. Stubbs, Lab Tech Ron Bottitta
Brown Spot David Mauer & Justin Okin (alternating)
Elaine Ostrich Jennifer Taub
Sonny Bonobo Edward Tournier
Madeline Kahn Amanda Mauer
James Rat Patrick Flanagan


Photo: John Flynn


- Sharon Perlmutter






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