Magic Time!: ‘O Monsters’ at Capital Fringe and the Limits of Criticism

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I went to see O Monsters, the radically abstract production created by Philadelphia’s New Paradise Laboratories, now playing in the Kogod Cradle at Arena as one of five curated productions in 2018 Capital Fringe. I had read the uncomprehending reviews—“near inscrutable,” “substitutes experimental flourishes for substance,” “doesn’t make much sense,” “just doesn’t make any sense”—so I was prepared to be baffled. But I wasn’t prepared to like it so much.

I was also relieved and glad to be seeing the show without having to write about it. I was there on my own dime. And I have no doubt that had I been there on a press comp obliged to make mental notes (or actual notes) about what I might explain to readers about what I was seeing, I would have liked the show a lot less. I might even have been put off by it because it was making my job so darn difficult.

I would have been distractedly struggling to translate this innovative production into familiarly linear sentences and paragraphs. Which is to say: I would have been trying to translate for others a language that I had not yet learned myself.

In the late ’60s and ’70s  I worked with the experimental Open Theatre—a collective whose influence has since informed a lot of collaboratively devised productions—and I learned then a lesson that I had forgotten until it flashed back to me after I watched O Monsters: Really original theater—meaning theater that’s unfamiliar because it’s not like theater that’s already been done to death before—has its own visual/aural vocabulary, its own kinesthetic grammar, its own way of conjugating action. It’s really its own new genre. Theater history is littered with such productions, work that was met with critical incomprehension if not resistance but went on to reshape and redefine what’s possible for theater to be.

As in the instance of O Monsters, which stretches perception quite beyond what’s commonly called for on local stages, such original work challenges audiences to be open to experiencing it without conventional expectations about how theater ought to mean—because the work itself is changing how theater can mean.

Kate Czajkowski, Julia Frey, Emilie Krause, and Matteo Scammell in ‘O Monsters.’ Artistic Director: Whit MacLaughlin. Photo courtesy of New Paradise Laboratories.

So what did I like so much about O Monsters? It took me a while to catch on, but I really enjoyed the show’s aesthetic, its quirky and imaginative juxtaposition of comedy and macabre. It had me chortling from the get-go. The piece opens with four performers posing in place onstage. One is in a black sheath on a table and three are in white underwear cuddle-huddled together. And then little green rubber balls start to drop from the grid, having nothing to do with anything except to bounce silly-like in counterpoint to the gravitas.

Had I required my brain to interpret what I was seeing, I might have missed being simply tickled. And, as I was to discover, there’s plenty in the piece to amuse. It’s not wink-wink, nudge-nudge funny. It’s humor that arises organically within the show’s own idiosyncratic syntax.

Simultaneously there’s some sort of horror show. We know from the program that the black-clothed figure is the mother and the three white-clothed figures are her triplets. And we soon learn there are dark and eventually gory goings-on. But all the while, the language of the performance admits incongruously of levity—so we’re kept chuckling when we wince, and cringing when we grin.

But even what I just said there fails to translate into sentences what transpires on stage. The language of criticism necessarily falls short when the language of a performance is thoroughly new. So when you see the show, forget everything you just read.

Running Time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.

O Monsters plays through July 22, 2018, at Arena Stage – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 866-811-4111, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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