Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
A Monster Calls
Also see Susan's review of Our Town
Based on a novel by Patrick Ness and adapted by Sally Cookson and Adam Peck, A Monster Calls follows the internal and external journeys of British schoolboy Conor (Anthony Aje). His mother (Bridgette Amofah) is debilitated with cancer, his father (Tom Lorcan) has remarried and moved to the United States, his grandmother (Anita Reynolds) doesn't know how to cope with him, and he's regularly bullied at school. On top of that, each night he has the same vague but terrifying dream, and he always wakes up at the same time during the night. Then an ancient yew tree comes to life (Paul Sockett, in for Keith Gilmore) and begins visiting him.
Cookson and her design partners use ingenious bits of staging to bring this fantastic story to life. It begins with a jolt to the audience's imagination: Mum holds a bundle of cloth representing Conor as an infant as she tells him the history of the tree, then she shakes out the cloth and it becomes the bathrobe she puts on.
"Stories are the wildest things of all," the Monster tells Conor, and he is determined that the boy reveal and defeat the fears he's been hiding. With the help of the other cast members, the Monster tells stories to Conor, using parts of Michael Vale's spartan set: looped ropes hanging from the ceiling form themselves into the body of the tree and other settings; actors sit on plain chairs at the sides of the stage until they, and sometimes also the chairs, become part of the action.
Aje gives a riveting performance and Sockett captures the Monster's otherworldly spirit, but the entire ensemble keeps up the pace and maintains the necessary tension throughout.
That isn't all, though. Lighting designer Aideen Malone has created piercing visuals, Mike Beer's sound design incorporates industrial noise as Dick Straker's video design draws the viewer into Conor's nightmares, and movement director Dan Canham captures the feeling of elemental battles between perception and reality, the lies people tell themselves, and the awareness that truth leads to healing.
A Monster Calls runs through June 12, 2022, in the Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW, Washington, DC. For tickets and information, please call 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.
Based on the novel by Patrick Ness