We just can't get enough of the apocalypse. The imminent demise of civilization strikes a chord with the public and fuels many of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters (Last Night, Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow). Even former sitcom star-turned-evangelist Kirk Cameron is getting in on the action with his participation in the Left Behind film series. Is it wish fulfillment that fuels the subject's popularity? (Audiences cheered when the White House was blown to bits during the previews for Judgment Day). Or is it because these fictions allow folks to face their deepest fears? Or maybe people just like explosions.
Monster in the Dark is a thrilling and ambitious addition to the growing genre. Three years in the making, the play is presented by San Francisco's foolsFURY Theater Company. Writer Doug Dorst taps the dark undercurrent of modern society (a chronic sense of powerlessness, religious zealotry, governmental fearmongering) through his vision of a not-entirely-unfamiliar Orwellian world dominated by three forces: a totalitarian government (The Structure), a state-sponsored fundamentalist religion (The Makersellers), and the world of rampant consumerism (The Stuff-Thrusters).
The play begins with a woman falling from the sky, her suicide sparking days of endless rainfall, which will hasten the "end of times" through a major flood. Faced with imminent disaster, some cling to religion, government or consumerism for succor, others yeild to panic and confusion. As these characters are tested by increasingly dire events, they come to individually reveal and express the monster within, posing the question of what, if anything, separates humanity from the monster.
Dorst's characters are original and complicated and the actors who play them bring their own special something to the written word. Debora Eliezer carries the play with her compelling portrayal of a Makerseller awaiting Noah and his ark. Beth Wilmurt is mesmerizing as Mrs. Huddleston, a conflicted teacher torn between her allegiance to The Structure and her belief in freedom. And Blythe Foster comes alive as Delia, a clairvoyant prostitute, inciting laughter with her spot-on delivery. All actors contribute to communal characters, such as the seafaring pirate and the umbrella wielding Gestapo-esque figures representing The Structure. In a world full of jaded stars, it's refreshing to witness the joy of these actors as they genuinely engage with the material.
Another note-worthy mention is Patrick Kaliski, the sound designer. He creates an eerily sinister atmosphere with sounds of persistent rain, white noise, and official announcements over a deconstructed public address system (the latter very cleverly utilized to inform the audience that The Structure has sanctioned a short intermission to purchase libations).
The production thrives most in its deviation from traditional structure, using theatrical abnormalities that make Monster in the Dark itself a monster. Instead of relying solely on in-scene dialogue, the narrative sometimes unfolds through the cyclical monologues of three characters. The actors also speak entirely original jargon created specifically for this alternate reality, referring to the body as a Skin Hull or the propaganda spoon fed to children as Structiculum. Even their movements stray from the norm, creating a raw physicality through choreographed flowing and plunging gestures that coincide with the flood's invisible waves. The breakdown of conventional storytelling isn't always effective, specifically when the cast engages in an arbitrary musical number that fails to deliver anything but groans. But the song is a minor and forgivable blunder.
Although a little lengthy and messy at times, Monster in the Dark truly is a "theatrical spectacle" and all of its risk-taking pays off in the end. I left the theater examining my own apocalyptic thought and anxiously awaiting the unveiling of my monster within.
Monster in the Dark runs through March 23, 2008 at CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission St. (near 9th) in San Francisco. 415-626-2060.