What happens when a man and a woman love each other very much? In the case of O Monsters, they spend a glorious night together before the man disappears and leaves his lover (now pregnant) behind to raise their triplets in a sort of subterranean limbo, haunted by the specter of their disappeared patriarch. While O Monsters’ performances and technical aspects are well executed, the production ultimately substitutes experimental flourishes for substance, never pushing past the surface of its own absurdity.
O Monsters is the brainchild of experimental theater ensemble New Paradise Laboratories. It was first performed in Philadelphia, where NPL is based, and joins Fringe as one of a handful of plays specifically curated or commissioned by the festival to appear in this year’s lineup. It’s not clear to what degree director Whit MacLaughlin has tweaked this version for Fringe, but the basic premise remains the same: a shut-in mother, called Moth, and her impish triplets live in a state of uncertain chaos, yearning for the return of the Captain (as the family patriarch is known) and awaiting a series of props that fall into their home from above.
It’s clear that props designer Alicia Crosby was kept busy: Some of the objects that fall from above are practical (bowls and cereal that clatter down in time for breakfast), some are nonsensical (a cascade of green rubber bouncy balls), and some are just plain dangerous (a chef’s knife falls point-first into the dining room table). The family foursome receives cryptic messages from on high, too. Several times throughout the production, a cascade of wooden slats tumbles down, each bearing a single word that Moth reads aloud to her brood. The order is random, but the words always seem to convey some sort of information about the missing Captain.
For instance, the first set reads, in part: “The fallen hilarity eternal Captain.” And so on.
closes July 22, 2018
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Delivered by a less capable performer, these missives might not be all that interesting, but Kate Czajkowski is captivating as Moth. She has a hint of a fallen starlet about her —a once-glamorous woman now left to tend to three scheming children. At one point, Moth dances and struts in front of an empty chair before taking a seat and chomping down on its wooden back. Czajkowski makes what could be a ludicrous gesture a plaintive and even seductive one. The Captain isn’t sitting there, of course, but he might as well be.
As for the triplets, much of their time onstage is spent as a synchronous tangle of limbs, an undertaking that Julia Frey, Emilie Krause, and Matteo Scammell carry out with ease. The mischievous trio is at its best when the triplets have the chance to indulge in physical comedy, as when they put on a pantomimed show for their mother. But this silliness doesn’t last for long — nor, it seems, does any sadness about their father’s absence.
This unevenness is perhaps the production’s central weakness. O Monsters skirts at the edges of compelling questions (Is the family unit an inherently beastly arrangement? Is living with grief a kind of death on Earth?) with ample embellishment but not enough urgency. The emotional underwhelm persists despite phenomenal sound design from composer Bhob Rainey, who sets the family’s world against what sound like the discordant tones of a frenetic underwater womb, and sparse but meticulously functional scenic design by Matt Saunders.
Running just under an hour, O Monsters never lags in a serious way, but it also never quite achieves liftoff. Just as the triplets and their mother search in vain for answers about the Captain, the audience is left struggling to find an emotional point of entry into the production’s topsy-turvy world. I imagine most viewers will be left wanting something just a little bit more truly monstrous to sink their teeth into.
O Monsters. Artistic Director: Whit MacLaughlin. Scenic Designer/Associate Artistic Director: Matt Saunders. Managing Director: KC Chun. Production Manager: Chris Sannino. Composer/Collaborator: Bhob Rainey. Costume Designer: Rosemarie McKelvey. Lighting Designer: Maria Shaplin. Props Designer: Alicia Crosby. Production Stage Manager: Annie Halliday. Assistant Stage Manager: Jilly Schwab. Featuring: Kate Czajkowski, Julia Frey, Emilie Krause, Matteo Scammell. Presented at Capital Fringe . Reviewed by Sarah Elizabeth Adler.