How to begin to write about The Monster in the Hall (by David Greig) at City Theatre? I could start with a short summary of the plot: it shows a chaotic day in the life of sixteen year-old Duck Macatarsney as she barely manages to care for her father, Duke, who has advanced multiple sclerosis. But that would make it sound like a depressing play, which it’s not. I could tell you that it made me laugh and cry, and that it has a number of boffo music and dance numbers. But that would make it sound like a sentimental Disney musical comedy, which it’s not. I could tell you that it’s a postmodern pastiche of theatrical styles, stealing, at various moments, the aesthetics of farce, video games, Oprah-style tv talk show, hip hop, adventure film chase scenes, and more. But that would make it sound like some kind of distancing intellectual exercise, which it’s not (and would make me sound like a pompous academic, which I sort of am).
Maybe I should start by telling you what the “monster” in the hall is, because like everything else in the world of the play, it’s both a metaphor that stands for bigger things and a deflation of that metaphor into a very real, mundane object. The monster is a Ducati Monster motorcycle, and it’s in the hall of their apartment because Duke has been repairing it for the last 13 years, ever since the rainy night Duck’s mother died when she crashed the Monster into a tree. Duck repeatedly crashes into this monster, too, both literally (she stubs her foot against it) and figuratively (as a symbol of the almost irreparable wreck their lives have become). But none of this is too heavy-handed, and in fact we’re meant to “get it” and move on: indeed, much of the fun of Greig’s writing lies in its ironic reworking of tropes and memes, as the characters are simultaneously deep in the chaos of their lives and also capturing its absurdity from a winking and knowing distance.
The play is, at essence, about coping, and about the mechanisms people deploy to cope with the lousy hand life can deal out sometimes. Duck copes by fantasizing — she is writing a novel, and a not very good one at that, an autobiography disguised as fairytale that, like the play itself, is a mashup (think “Beauty and the Beast” as written by JK Rowling and Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer). Duke copes with his illness and isolation through online gaming, where he can imaginatively regain ability and mastery over his failing body by inhabiting a hyper-able avatar. But neither of these strategies allows them to avoid tripping the daily landmines that Duck’s “fairy badmother of catastrophe” keeps lobbing at their feet, and while the leaflets that the visiting social worker leaves behind probably won’t solve everything either, the play reminds us how fragile our own webs of dependency are, and how difficult it is to admit that our coping mechanisms aren’t succeeding.
The production is superb. The play itself is an ‘open text,’ meaning that the script consists of lines unattributed to character — the director, dramaturg, composer, and cast were free to decide who says what and which text would be spoken or sung. As a result, some of the songs don’t feel like proper song lyrics, but that only adds to the DIY fun of the play. The music and sound design, by Eric Shimelonis, is fresh and lively, and ranges stylistically all over the map (from ballad to rap to video game soundscape). Narelle Sissons’ scene design vividly captures Duck’s world as Duck might imagine it from a distance: like the play itself, the set collages together images and objects, with enough doors to support the play’s farcical elements (and then some) and enough graffiti to remind us of the chaotic poverty in which Duke and Duck live. The setting is at once bewildering and threatening (the back wall looms over the action), and sweetly homey (painted flowers and princesses stand as counterpoint to the graffiti). As we know from Freud, dreams of houses are dreams about our minds, and Sissons’ set, with its closed doors, evokes both the potentiality of Duck’s imagination and the possibilities ahead of her, and the doors of life already closed behind her. The wall of doors also serves as a screen for Larry Shea’s projections, which are never merely illustrative of the action but come into active dialogue with it, ranging stylistically from the sublime (images of Duck’s eyes in noir closeup) to the giddily playful (video game pixellation). The lighting design (Andrew David Ostrowski) makes the stylistic shifts between the scenes pop and crackle. Angela M. Vesco’s costumes set us squarely in the working class “biker” world, and the movement work, by Tomé Cousin, is fun and fresh, giving the play an irreverent, spiky, ironic energy (he has staged several stand-out movement pieces, including a hip hop cooking scene and a brilliant comic love scene between avatars).
The cast is terrific. Sheila McKenna is one of my favorite comic actors in town, and she does not disappoint here: she plays several roles with sharp precision and excellent comic timing, including the well-meaning leaflet-dispersing social worker Mrs. Underhill and the take-no-prisoners troll-like Norwegian Agnetha (who has come to meet “in real life” the Duke she has fallen in love with in an MPU game). David Whalen gets down and dirty as the ex-biker Duke, and Melinda Helfrich shines as Duck. Matt Dengler is charming as the sartorially-minded Lawrence Lofthouse. Sticklers (and sometimes I am one) will have issues with the accent work: the Scottish brogue comes and goes and occasionally slips into something sounding more Texan or Appalachian. Given that a “real” Scottish brogue would probably be incomprehensible to us in any case, I would almost wish for the play to be displaced into an American setting so that the accents could be wholly dispensed with, but such a change would probably alter the character of the play in unwanted ways (for one thing, it would require changing the wonderfully rhythmic and alliterative Scottish name-places that come up throughout the play).
I always feel theater is doing its job when it moves me to think about something I was unaware of previously, and, in the process, to rethink (and reflect on) what I know, what I think I know, and what I don’t know. Monster in the Hall does that work, in a comic, touching, self-aware way. While I’ve heard and thought a great deal about how adult children cope with their aging parents, the fact that there are minor children caring for, and coping with, disabled parents has never popped up on my radar screen, despite the fact that (when I think about it) I see children with disabled parents all the time. How do these families cope? Greig’s comic portrait of a family dealing with crisis is satisfying, but it’s also deliberately, self-reflectively, self-awarely wistful, a “rewrite” from Duck’s narrative perspective. I suspect–and I think we are meant, at the end of Greig’s play, to be left suspecting– that in real life many such families are not as able to deal with the regular visits from their “fairy badmother of catastrophe” with the same mixture of humor and imaginative flight into fantasy.