In his 2009 post-apocalyptic nightmare fairy tale Treefall, playwright Henry Murray, director John Perrin Flynn, a superb quartet of actors, and an extraordinary design team joined forces at Rogue Machine for one of the year’s most moving, thought-provoking, absorbing pieces of theater.

The selfsame playwright and director along with two of the production’s designers have now reunited at Theatre/Theater for the World Premiere of Monkey Adored, Murray’s less successful allegory about a ragtag band of animals in revolt against their human oppressors.

Though I found my interest steadily lagging after the play’s delightfully unique opening scene, a sextet of noteworthy performances and another terrific design package make Monkey Adored worth a look-see, particularly for playgoers more inclined to embrace the type of theater I like to call “fringey.”

Monkey Adored’s setup simply couldn’t be more enjoyable. Murray, Flynn, and company take us to Le Café Café, a fanciful coffee house where humanlike animals congregate for interspecies meeting and mating. Projection designer Adam Flemming provides us with the café’s window to the outside world, letting us see the animated animal forms of Murray’s characters before they enter portrayed by human actors.

There’s Brown Spot (David Mauer at the performance reviewed), an adorable pup who has fallen head over heels for Sonny Bonobo (Edward Tournier), the titular simian who seems equally willing to monkey-shtup both Brown Spot and the pooch’s main competitor Madeline Kahn (Amanda Mauer), a slinky kitten with a speech impediment. Le Café Café is presided over by maitre d’ Penguinito (Ron Bottitta), whose name reveals his genus, and its bosomy hostess Elaine Ostrich (Jennifer Taub).

Scene One may remind you of those classic Warner Brothers Looney Toons, though it’s doubtful studio head Jack Warner would have given thumbs up to the same-sex monkey business (make that monkey-&-dog business) going on between Sonny and Brown Spot.

There are hints of seriousness from the get-go. We learn right away that Sonny has recently been released from an animal testing lab, and that Elaine is battling illness. Still, it isn’t till the introduction of a sixth character, James Rat (Patrick Flanagan), that things take a decidedly darker tone.

Whether James is terrorist or hero depends on whose side is talking. If his plan to enlist one of the café regulars as a suicide bomber sounds no different from what we label terrorism in this post-9/11 world, to hear James talk, it’s an act of defiance against government exploitation of animals used in testing remedies for radiation sickness. As to whether those remedies would be used by “our side’s” military following our own aggression or to protect innocent nuclear attack victims remains ambiguous.

Ultimately, what might have segued from frothy comedy to suspenseful thriller ends up bogged down in pretension. One scene has our animal friends pondering what it means to see the image of Elvis in a bowl of green Jello. Another has Brown Spot and Penguinito lost in a limbo known only as The Star Grotto.

Director Flynn does his very best to help his cast flesh out characters who are perhaps by nature more symbolic than three-dimensional. David Mauer’s Brown Spot is so darned loveable that your heart aches for him whenever Sonny toys with his affections. Tournier is dynamic and charismatic as always, and it’s a tossup as to which coupling provides more sparks, Sonny’s same-sex seduction of Brown Spot, or his more traditional (and more explicitly played) coupling with Madeline. Playwright Murray has the latter character pwonouncing all her l’s and r’s as w’s, appawentwy because Kahn the actwess pwayed Wiwi Von Shtupp with a speech impediment in Bwazing Saddows—however without the German accent, the pwonuciation defect just sounds siwwy. That being said, Amanda Mauer does her appealing best despite the imposed handicap, and I wouldn’t have minded if Monkey Adored had centered on this most unusual love triangle and left out the heavy-handedness of the second act.

In smaller but terrifically performed roles, Bottitta is deliciously droll as Penguinito and the wonderful Taub is all warmth and curves as Elaine.

Finally, Flanagan is so truly ratlike in the evening’s richest performance that James Rat becomes the character you least enjoy being around, a backhanded compliment if there ever was one but no criticism intended of some darned fine work.

Where Monkey Adored scores highest is in the contributions of its stellar design crew. Scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz makes ingenious use of Theatre/Theater’s expansive stage area, including its upper level wings, the Star Grotto sequence in particular a gorgeous explosion of colored lights against a pitch black sky. Schwartz shares design kudos with projection designer Flemming’s fantabulous animated images and Dan Weingarten’s vivid lighting. Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s sound design is once again superbly varied and imaginative. Not surprisingly, Monkey Adored’s costumes are a particular treat, Schwartz giving Sonny a jaunty organ grinder’s monkey’s hat, Elaine a sexy black bustier and feathers, Madeline a sleek leopard print, and James a Che Guevarra t-shirt. Puppeteers David Combs and Linda Hoag appear in Act Two with one of their creations, which I’ll let surprise you. Michael Wells has composed apt original music.

Additional credits are shared by Stephen Runningen (graphic design), Hazel King (assistant scenic designer), David Mauer (technical director), Amanda Mauer (production manager), Brenda Davidson (assistant director), and Ramón Valdez (stage manager). Monkey Adored is produced by Flynn, Matthew Elkins, and Tournier.

My best guess is that Rogue Machine’s latest will hold considerably more appeal for fans of Orwell, Vonnegut, and C.S. Lewis than it did for this reviewer. Though ultimately it ended up a bit too arty for my tastes, those looking for something out of the ordinary might do well to give Monkey Adored a try.

Rogue Machine, in Theatre Theater, 5041 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 16, 2011
Photos: John Flynn

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