A toothy screech and an armpit scratch of approval are due to Piper Mckenzie productions, the “Sonny and Tennille” of Indie Theatre, whose recent Brick Theatre hit Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury has been extended through April 13. I’ve been watching their work for something like a decade now (gasp! can’t breathe…) and I think I can say objectively and without exaggeration that Craven Monkey is their best work to date. (This includes Willy Nilly, a work they’re so ashamed of, I couldn’t help but notice its nowhere on their web site. But that’s neither here nor there. Nor there. But it is, oh, it is most emphatically over THERE.) [Ed. addendum: the egregious lapse has since been rectified].
While they have produced many kinds of shows over the years, including serials, radio shows, variety shows and even plays by intellectual Eastern Europeans, I think of the main trunk line of the Piper McKenzie oeuvre as consisting of two main categories:
1). Silent, humorous, lean and mean movement theatre pieces such as Bizarre Science Fantasy, The Perfect Girl, Sexadelic Cemetary, and MacBeth Without Words. The latter one wasn’t too funny. Except when all that blood fell out of that one guy’s mouth. These pieces seem to be admirable exercises in discipline, given the chatterbox nature of the company’s two principal artists Jeff Lewonczyk and Hope Cartelli. Nevertheless, I think a company should harness its assets. To me, the choice not to showcase Jeff’s often dazzling verbal flights is like a circus deciding to ground the Flying Wallendas. That said, the other category consists of:
2) Large-scale, bloated, Baroque (one might even say monstrous) musical comedy epics like The Adventures of Caveman Robot, Babylon Babylon, John Goldfarb Please Come Home (though that wasn’t officially Piper Mckenzie), and, yes, Willy Nilly. Mel Brooks has said his first draft of The Producers was four hours long. These works are kind of like that. Often as delicious and rich as cheesecake. But who can eat an entire cheesecake?
In Craven Monkey Piper McKenzie’s have taken the best elements from each of these two categories and come up with something that, on its own terms, is perfect. The piece was cooked up for the Brick’s Fight Fest, a few months back. On one level, the show is one of the traditional Piper McKenzie humorous movement pieces; there is no dialogue, at least none in people-talk. The plot is a sort of mythological epic which seems to draw at least some of its inspiration from the anthropomorphized monkey-hero of the 16th century Chinese fable “Journey to the West”. Really helping to sell that effect are Julianne Kroboth’s costumes, which are I think the best she’s done – rooted in tradition, beautiful to look at, and practical for the actors to move in. And move they do, as each step on the monkey-hero’s journey is punctuated by scenes depicting what monkeys and men do best: humping and trying to kill each other. Like the late Michael Jackson, I’m a man of peace — not a fighter. While I imagine the martial arts choreography of Qui Nguyen and Adam Swiderski was very good, I vastly preferred scenes like this:
But I haven’t gotten to the icing on the banana cake. Overlaying the whole piece is Jeff Lewonczyk’s hilarious narration (done in a pompous English accent), which mixes the narration of a myth with that of a nature documentary – and somehow it works so seamlessly we don’t even particularly notice the crazy marriage. Like, who’s narrating this thing? It’s as though God despite his Omniscience had the bland personality of Alistaire Cooke. It is a laugh riot, and many in the ensemble cast shine as well, including Hope Cartelli as a forbidding Goddess; Becky Byers magically flying through the air like an insect; Art Wallace as a Yoda-like hooded monkey-mentor; and Mateo Moreno, whose costume is so awesome I won’t spoil it for you.
Best of all — a nice sense of formal proportion. The thing is as long as it needs to be and no longer. Or to quote Leibniz, “the best of all possible worlds”.
For more info and tickets, tell your monkey to type here.