In-your-face theatrics, larger-than-life puppetry and social commentary on man’s inherently beastly nature collide in Monkey Madness, a high-energy, postmodern piece of theatre written by a former Cirque du Soleil clown. Currently being staged at the Powerhouse Theatre by the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, the play is appealing in its zest for the avant-garde, but unappealing in its painfully aggressive didacticism. The experience is like that of being in church with a fire-and-brimstone priest shouting in your face to accept the one-and-only Truth. Believe it, or be gone.
There’s no such thing as a fourth wall here, but that aspect is a given of the genre and works just fine. A pre-performance theatrical device finds actors outfitted as monkeys roaming the aisles, hanging from the rafters, shrieking and begging audience members for bananas. It’s an age-old interactive gimmick designed to pull audiences into the world of the play, making them aware that a non-linear pastiche awaits. But writer/director Daisuke Tsuji makes the mistake of creating too much racket and too many staring contests between monkeys and audience members, so there’s no room for individual thought. It’s one big confrontation from the moment you walk in, the upshot of which is an exhausting night at the theatre. In one scene, the monkeys dance in mosh-pit fashion to the beat of driving, pulsing music. This is fun to watch at first, until they approach the lip of the small stage and scream at the audience, a cacophony lit by harsh, naked, white light. A fight between monkeys and apes culminates in a tossing of fake fecal matter across the aisles. In a later scene, the central character, Monkey Boy (Randy Thompson) is schooled on the art of evolution by a human professor pedaling porn as a means of enlightenment.
So, the message that humans are as un-evolved as monkeys is abundantly clear, but we’re hit over the head with said message to the point that we cease to care about the fate of humankind.
Tsuji has a strong vision and an admirable capacity for creative bravery. Hopefully, he’ll learn to trust his material in the future, and give the audience a chance to digest his lofty themes without force-feeding us. Cristina Bercovitz hits a home run with her puppetry design.
Through July 18 at The Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble at The Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd Street Santa Monica. For tickets, visit www.latensemble.com. Tickets are $15 online, $20 at the door.