Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Monster
Swandive Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., How to Use a Knife, Acting Black, and Einstein: A Stage Portrait


Kelsey McMahon and Avi Aharoni
Photo by Dan Norman
Swandive Theater takes us back in history—way, way back to the dawn of the internet—in its world premiere production of Monster, by Sam Graber, mounted at The Southern Theater under the auspices of the Art Share program. The titular monster is imbedded within the internet, that new and amazing network that connects everyone and everything, and in this way is the seed of evil that, if left unchecked, will drive everyone who looks upon it berserk.

To be precise, the year is 1994, and we are on a university campus in a snug dorm room shared by two very different freshmen students: computer-obsessive Brill and party-hearty Nessa. Each had expected to have a single, but an administrative snafu, which is revealed to us later, has brought them together. Nessa is actually delighted. She always wanted a roommate, someone to become an automatic best friend, to go to parties and moon over boys with. You see, Nessa is less concerned about her studies than the "full college experience," which will be lubricated by use of her fake ID. Brill, however, is worriedly glued to her computer screen, which is hooked up to a monitor and several other devices by enough cords to run the holiday lights at a Christmas tree lot. She groans and gasps in despair over her read-outs, and has a bulletin board saturated by lists of online sites, which she is using a "wiper" to remove. Brill is the one who tells Nessa—and, by extension, the rest of us—that if she doesn't keep on top of this mission, everyone in the world will go berserk.

It is hard to take this premise seriously. If Graber had set his play in the future and suggested advancements to the internet as we now know it—demanding of our attention as it is—that raised its already-dangerous attributes in a way that would drive people berserk, there would be something to work with. Jennifer Haley's The Nether, still running at The Jungle, is a great case in point.

But the status of our technology in 1994 is known to us. The idea of a network connecting data of computers from a distance was proposed at least as early as 1960 (by J.C.R. Licklider), with variations of that concept under development ever since. The World Wide Web was created in 1989 and went live in 1990. In 1992, Congress passed the Scientific and Academic Technology Act, which defined the internet and laid parameters for its uses. In 1994 there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no iTunes, no Hulu, no Expedia; Amazon was a start-up founded that year. Yet, we are asked to imagine that the technology in 1994 beheld a monster with the power to drive humankind berserk, and that an 18-year-old lone wolf with zero social skills (natch) was the only one who knew this, making her responsible for saving humankind.

Actually, Brill is not the only one in the know. Monster's third character is Greg, a 21-year-old dorm Resident Assistant. Greg is handsome and attentive to the students in his charge, which draws Nessa's interest (she announces to Brill, "Roommates! We're going to do everything together! Except Greg, I saw him first. Cool?"), but Greg has some unspoken connection to the mysterious workings of Brill's computer. In the course of the play's ninety minutes, his involvement in Brill's obsession becomes known to us, which is not to say it becomes clear, as not much in Monster is ever really made clear. The ending, in which the three characters have all gone through major changes, leaves each of them no more believable than when we first met.

Jamie Fields is a hoot as Nessa, a terrific caricature of the type of student who goes to college raring for sex and booze, yet nice and chipper as she can be. Fields exudes comic energy and great physicality as she restlessly rolls around her bed, obsessively changes outfits (which look straight off the rack at Forever 21), and chatters endlessly about nothing. Kelsey McMahon also does a good job as Brill, actually believable as a young adult enmeshed in what she believes is the most important thing ever, unable to turn from it. McMahon plays the part well, anxiously drawing her fingers through her hair and rubbing her eyes to stay awake (she has a regimen of sleeping 20 minutes every four hours), not meaning to be rude, just not bothering to be otherwise. Avi Aharoni is less successful in depicting Greg. He is too nervous and officious at the start to convincingly be an R.A., then suddenly becomes a sly manipulator, with nothing to bridge these two faces.

Director Meg DiSciorio no doubt has confidence in the material at hand, but there is little she can do to bring sense to this story. Sean McCardle designed a great dorm room facsimile, with wires sprouting up from it in all directions, embodying the emergent web. Kevin Springer's sound design provides the electronic noises associated with the technology. The light board malfunctioned just before the performance I attended, so the play was performed with the work lights on, without the benefit of Jessie Cogswell's lighting design. Unfortunate as this was, it is hard to conceive that nuanced stage lighting would have brought logic to Monster.

Are there real threats in the omnipresence of the internet and its ability to convey falsehoods, foment hate, trigger disorder, normalize evil, and generally bring out the worst in human nature? Clearly, yes. One has only to look at its use in recruiting terrorists, undermining confidence in democratic institutions, disrupting financial systems, and sexually preying upon underage browsers to know this is true. Are there plays to be written and produced to put these concerns out on the public forum? Sure. In fact, there have been such plays, going back at least to Patrick Marber's Closer in 1997, some forgettable, others brilliant (see: The Nether, above). Let's have more, especially as the issues evolve and the stakes seem to grow more urgent. But let's not have them devised with imagined bogeymen set in what, in the digital era, is ages ago, in implausible circumstances and outcomes. There are real online fires burning right now, and visible up the road crying for our attention.

Monster, a Swandive Theatre production, playa through October 7, 2017, as part of the Art Share series at The Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $20.00, Students with ID: $12.00; Art Share members, free. For tickets go to southerntheater.org. For information on Art Share go to southerntheater.org/home/artshare/. For information on Swandive Theatre go to swandivetheatre.net.

Playwright: Sam Graber; Director: Meg DiSciorio; Assistant Director: Bryan Grosso; Set and Property Design: Sean McCardle; Costume Design: Lisa Conley; Sound Design: Kevin Springer; Light Design: Jesse Cogswell; Production Director/Video Design Damon Runnals; Stage Manager: Michelle Morris.

Cast: Avi Aharoni (Greg), Jamie Fields (Nessa), Kelsey McMahon (Brill).


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