Against a background of black timber walls, a beautiful dark-haired woman stretches out languorously on a table. Dressed in a skimpy black nightgown, she moves like a dancer. On the floor, three figures—apparently androgynous triplets—lie curled up so close to each other that they appear, at first, to be a single creature with six legs. They awaken slowly, in unison.
Surrounding them, on a half-darkened stage, are a few scattered chairs. Off to one side—which may, or may not, be the interior of a spaceship—are three hooks, from which hang three identical white gowns with bonnets. On the other side is a wheelchair, awaiting some sinister use.
So yes, these are monsters, otherwise known as a universal mother and her three identical children. They inhabit O Monsters, the highly experimental performance piece that opened at Arena Stage during the first weekend of the 2018 Capital Fringe Festival. The four of them—three against one—circle each other. The mother, at one point, wields a knife.
They move, they mug, they mime; they scream and wail and (occasionally) utter words that are read off cards. They also play around. And yes, there are some funny bits in this otherwise bleak war between the generations. I laughed out loud—with recognition, of course—when the children, having eaten their cereal, put the bowls upside down on their heads.
There’s a scene in which flowers sprout out of unlikely places. And another, even more astonishing, in which they re-enact birth: each adult child comes bursting out, in full dress—bonnets, makeup, and all—from between the woman’s spread legs. Other scenes are bewildering, full of staccato movement that seems to be saying that family life can be noisy, repetitive, incomprehensible, and exhausting.
Kate Czajkowski, Julia Frey, Emilie Krause, and Matteo Scammell make up the ensemble. While their performances are highly professional, they are limited by the material, much of which resembles exercises, conducted over and over, in an acting class. There is plenty of mime and movement. Yet the range of emotions suggests a pack of ravenous zombies.
O Monsters is the creation of a Philadelphia-based company called New Paradise Laboratories. Whit MacLaughlin is the artistic director. In the program notes, he writes that the group aspires to “create curious alternative worlds in order to reflect on our own world.” The program also notes that the group “values accidental inspiration and shocks to the system.” It delivers.
Matt Saunders is the associate artistic director and set designer. Alicia Crosby is responsible for the props, most of which drop, at alarming intervals, from the ceiling. In fact, it is as if some invisible deity were hurling bouncing balls, cereal bowls, bits of paper, and, most alarmingly—especially for those who are sitting in the first rows–a knife with a very large blade.
Bhob Rainer is the composer and performer of the electronic sound, which sometimes suggests planets or asteroids colliding. There is also the buzzing of saws, the ripping of cloth, the wailing of infants, or even, in one awful instance, the scratch of fingernails on a chalkboard.
On the other hand, the costumes—designed by Rosemarie McKelvey—are quite funny. The triplets—played by two women and a man—are all dressed, at first, in close-fitting jockey-style underwear, somewhat like diapers. When they get dressed, the long robes they don are christening gowns, which go perfectly with the bonnets, which are so silly they’re hilarious.
Although the choreography—by KC Chun, who has taught dance at Temple and Bryn Mawr—is brilliant, the performance, in the end, doesn’t make much sense.
O Monsters is one of the five works commissioned by Capital Fringe as part of the inaugural Curated Series. True to its mission, the work is abstract, yet penetrable. Indeed, if you like experimental theater, this piece may be fun. On the other hand, if you are one of those, like me, who prefer the drama of ideas—even if the ideas are without narrative—then this performance will be difficult.
Running Time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.