Why the heck is From the Mouths of Monsters only running this weekend? The workshop production currently in all-too brief residence at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater is more than ready for a full primetime run.
Monsters is the latest piece from rising star playwright Idris Goodwin, whose hip-hop origin story How We Got On has been making the regional rounds since it’s debut at the Humana Festival in 2012. Monsters shows Goodwin returning to some familiar themes, with the origin story of yet another young black performer making furtive steps into stardom, this time in the world of open-mic poetry slams. Like Got On, Monsters is an exceedingly clean play. Its language is pristine and appropriate for all audiences, while still maintaining some political and stylistic edge.
Monsters is billed as a Young Audiences take on Frankenstein. I’d say it’s loosely based on that piece. Very loosely. Exceedingly loosely. There’s a lab, an experiment, a doctor named “Franklin” and a young woman named Michelle “Shelly” (get it?). The crux of the story here is shy teen poet Shelly (Shannon Dorsey) and her journey to poetry-slam stardom. Painfully reticent to perform, Shelly’s therapist Dr. Franklin (Tia Shearer) implants an experimental cybernetic mask design to remove doubt from Shelly’s psyche.
Soon former wilting flower Shelly is more confident and risk-taking, rising through the ranks of local slam-poetry society. Eventually the metaphorical power of her oratory turns literal as the good doctor’s implant starts changing Shelly’s core personality, and, oh yeah, giving her the power to raise and command armies of the dead. It’s a whole thing.
Both Dorsey and Shearer are excellent. Dorsey makes a convincing slam poet and anchors the show well. Shearer is a straight up chameleon, switching between characters as diverse as a mysterious therapist, a teenage video game champ, and a fellow teenage poet friend of Shelly’s.
Want to go?
From the Mouths of Monsters
closes March 12, 2017
Details and tickets
The power of music, sound and the human voice are recurring themes in Goodwin’s work. Sound designer Christopher Baine generally provides an excellent sonic playground, with lots of recorded vocal loops, though increasing reliance on Shelly’s amped and warped “monster” voice towards the end of the play threatens to throw Dorsey’s performance off-balance. Luciana Stecconi’s modular set, filled with vintage recording equipment makes for a convincing lab and slam poetry club.
I liked the very well-regarded Got On when I saw it’s recent production at Forum, but Monsters feels like a superior play in the making. Its language is more energetic and its characters sharper. I had issues with the climax though. Given its themes of a young women finding power through her voice and words, is it right that the climax includes a choice to self-censor? It felt like a misstep, but all exciting journeys have their wayward turns, and Monsters makes for a fun trip and it will be exciting to see it develop in the future.
The Kennedy Center has been on a bit of a hot streak with these blink-and-you-missed residencies of young audience works in progress. Just in the past year I’ve enjoyed Where Words Once Were and Bud, Not Buddy, and excellent and diverse collection of works of which Monsters is a worthy addition. I just wish we had had than a weekend to catch it.
From the Mouths of Monsters, by Idris Goodwin. Directed by Dougie Irvine. Scenic Design: Luciana Stecconi; Lighting Design: C.C. Gould; Costume Design: Deb Sivigny; Sound Design: Christopher Baine; Properties Artisan: Jacy Barber. Stage Manager: Maribeth Chaprnka Presented by the Kennedy Center at the Eisenhower Theatre through March 12, 2017.