Monster in the Dark is an unfortunate title for foolsFURY Theater Company's first company-created play, because it sounds much less interesting than it actually is. Far from a things-that-go-bump-in-the-night creature feature, Doug Dorst's play appears to be set in a standard-issue authoritarian dystopian future but gradually blossoms into a linguistically and visually sumptuous allegory of excesses very much present in present-day society.
Indeed, in many ways the repeated use of "monster" to refer to a variety of things — whether demonized enemies, dehumanized government lackeys, or nightmares bred of free-floating anxiety — is one of the less potent themes in the play.
Although it will go on to a three-week run at San Francisco's CounterPULSE in March, it is appropriate that the play's world premiere is at Ashby Stage, where it was previously developed as a Shotgun Theatre Lab work-in-progress production in 2005.
As people take their seats on either side of the stage, the characters mill around interacting with the audience. A folksy fella (Peter Ruocco) makes friendly banter and strums his acoustic guitar, the scowling umbrellamen (secret police with long coats and umbrellas) issue citations, and an evangelist (Debórah Eliezer) spreads the gospel of the Maker.
FoolsFURY puts a strong emphasis on physical theater, and that is evident throughout the play. Lovers balance on each other's arms and knees. Bodies appear to bob above and below water that isn't there, abetted by Patrick Kaliski and Cameron Mock's deft sound and lighting design. This isn't a dance piece, but the judicious way that stylized movements are used to heighten certain scenes is particularly effective.
Also impressive are the pictures created by artistic director Ben Yalom's staging. The physical space of Ashby Stage is used cleverly, as when Beth Wilmurt's Miss Huddleston encounters Ryan Tasker's Prisoner crouching on one of the banisters. There are several triptychs between the Prisoner, traumatized prostitute Delia (Blythe Foster), and a mop-bearded Fisherman portrayed as a bogeyman by the government (played by various members of the company). The spotlight shifts back and forth between the Prisoner's high tower, the ladder that serves as the Fisherman's boat, and Delia on the floor between them as they speak a few lines each of their parallel monologues.
Ben Sherris' set is minimal: a bare floor with a ladder on one side and an arch with a plastic tarp hanging down on the other. A black platform is added in the second half. And Kaibrina Sky Buck and Ambra Sultzbaugh's costumes are a striking mix of brightly-colored gloves, scarves, or shirts over oppressive grays. An unnerving white noise underlies most scenes, broken jarringly by cheerful warnings to behave broadcast over the radio and school PA systems.
People speak in Structure-spackle, a jargon of hybrid words and unusual usages that's mostly understandable and often funny. Dorst also dabbles heavily in poetic repetition, often of phrases that could easily be future idioms: "You contain scarcities," "Fear is not a resource," and "I prayed and the Maker showed me his ass."
Although the evangelist, or Makerseller, is waiting to be liberated from the strictly controlled society of the Structure, it's not at all clear that her zealotry is necessarily preferable to the state-sponsored one. Even the prophetic Prisoner doesn't really have any answers — he can warn against what is coming, but doesn't say what should.
Each actor plays multiple roles, which helps keep things fresh while also fleshing out the world they've created. Jessica Kitchens is the hapless Mina, an unremarkable if attractive woman who's neglected by her midlevel functionary husband, but wanted by her lover Vic for obvious reasons and by the Makerseller to fulfill some kind of prophecy (although it's unclear how). Mostly her role is to humanize Vic, who is so career-driven he's almost a drone, although Ruocco's portrayal always shows the soft side Vic tries to deny.
Wilmurt is particularly delightful as prim Miss Huddleston, a schoolteacher who tries to stick to the Structure-approved "structiculum" but can't help remembering the less propagandistic endings that the children's stories used to have. She's also quite funny in other parts such as an apathetic shrink.
The wild-eyed quality that choreographer Eliezer brings to the Makerseller is appropriate for a religious zealot, but she's broad to the point of camp in other roles such as the Fisherman or that of a corporate bigwig. Foster's Delia is almost feral, especially later on when certain characters are thrust together by circumstance. And a half-crazed seer like the Prisoner doesn't leave much room for nuance, so it's fun to see Tasker and Foster play other roles such as sinisterly unctuous colleagues of Miss Huddleston.
Between the totalitarian regime and Dorst's futuristic newspeak, it's hard not to think of Orwell early and often, but the humor and inventive dialogue help keep it from feeling too familiar. It does, however, seem overlong. It's a shock at the ninety-minute mark to discover that it's only intermission, because it really doesn't need to be close to three hours. Fortunately, the second half shakes things up enough to ensure that it's time well spent.
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