Review of MONSTERFACE
A Play by Daniel Roberts
Review by Stefan Matthew
Through June 28th
Daniel Roberts’s “Monsterface” at the Irish Arts Center should be applauded in its ambition. Its ambition and expanse, its tapestry of plot-lines, and subthemes renders it a quite courageous production and presents an interpretive crisis for the audience. A tragic byproduct of American Cold Warrior fall-out is that dialectics is not really taught in the schools. I’m not even talking about the Hegel-Marx-Engels-Lenin-Mao variety. Your run of the mill Heraclitus: “Can’t walk into the same stream twice” is absent from our “shared” American sensibility. That combined with an equally brutal onslaught of anti-intellectualism+ pressure of commerce renders ambition risky. Straight up dangerous, actually. This deficiency has everything to do with the danger and ambitious courage of this kind of production. Because we are so un-dialectical in our thought processes, its hard to juggle sometimes a theory of mediation to make sense of all the levels going on in a work of this scope. Roberts must know this—yet, he presents a New York audience with “Monster Face”. This in and of itself should be rewarded.
“Monsterface” presents us with a bodily and psychic trauma that is shocking and revolting and acted upon the body of actress Sarah Grace Wilson in her role of Melanie Crane. The play is smart enough to not have us stuck in that shock—it evokes the unspoken “Monsterface” in order to explain it and go somewhere else. That somewhere else is a wide expanse—wider than the expanse of the action’s Pennsylvania setting or the channel crossed by George Washington and his compatriots (another level in the plot). “Monsterface” is about trauma and their back-stories, historical memory and reenactment, the messiness of attempting to moralize the decisions of individuals all trying to survive in something the poet Shelley adequately captured as something like, a little less than hell.
Stuart Rudin, as inn-keeper and Revolutionary War re-enactment participant Mr. Sanderson, Jason Blain as the awkward sexually deprived Mickey, Davis Hall as the voice of the ever-present medical establishment as depraved super-ego, Dr. Stovin, Ted Schneider’s role as Melanie’s husband, Anna Wood as the nostalgic (but not really) mother of the lead– The whole ensemble takes you to a long, meandering place where you have to think alongside each other:
*Sexual abuse and self-mutilation
*Discourses of Mental Illness and Ideas about Interiority versus Exteriority and Reprieve
*Nostalgia for the past versus embrace of progress versus an awareness that that opposition doesn’t even make much sense
*History as a staging
*Morality as an absolute given or a contingent wavering flux
*The weirdness of historical battle re-enactment
*How the above all relates to sometimes amazing and sometimes god awful array of eighties (and perhaps late seventies) rock tunes.
I got back from the play and turned on the late-news–
A white worker (I think he was Irish) was quoted stating some crass anti-Obama pro-Hillary statement. In the arc of the sound-bite he laments a yester-year when steel manufacturing was a viable source of stability for American workers.
Here is the thing:
*The devaluation of American manufacturing, the shifting to the already underdeveloped and super-exploited global South has been a horrible crisis for American workers. The exit of manufacturing like steel (in places like PA, home of the action of this play) has been devastating!
*However, all too often protest against these structural changes get layered into a racialistic, highly problematic policing against so-called foreigners, and various racialized others. Kind of like those creepy Civil War (or pace Monsterface) Revolutionary War re-enacters.
*Besides, (and perhaps most importantly) working in a steel manufacturing plant sucks! It’s grueling, back breaking labor, and absolutely soul sucking. Another strategy must be imagined. In order to get there, a complicated theory of mediation that can express the rational and sympathetic concerns of that worker, that desire for progress, without falling back on easy racial scape-goating and remember when Revolutionary War nostalgia…
“Monster-Face” doesn’t have the answers.
But it helps illustrate how challenging and central the problem.
Go see it!!!! Serious work should be taken seriously. I applaud this work.