ST. PETERSBURG — American Monkey is not a cozy night at the theater where you'll laugh and head out for cheesecake and drift off to sleep.
You'll be squirming, and yes, you'll be laughing, and then at dessert you'll be talking, and then at night you'll be thinking.
What did I just see?
American Monkey made its international debut Saturday at Freefall Theatre. The play is by Mihkel Raud, a rock star in Estonia and a judge on the franchise of American Idol there. Writing the play was a way to absolve himself for what he saw as sins of reality TV, chief among them humiliating innocents for our own amusement.
The play's fictional auditions for American Superstar play out on the floor, seats flanking a judge's table and a stage on both sides. It's a high-tech and inviting set by Matt Davis, with cool touches of modern Hollywood and ancient Rome. To start, audience members sang in front of the judges, which felt clunky as the actors tried to say lines over impromptu chatter.
We meet three judges. There's Alex (John Lombardi), a haughty music snob who harps about "melismas," those vocal runs everyone abuses. There's Courtney (Stefanie Clouse), a pretty pop star almost too stupid to breathe. And there's Norman (Patrick Ryan Sullivan), a washed-up rocker who is mean, so very mean. He has secrets.
We meet Fred (Chris Jackson), a boyish dude with a guitar who does a fine job on Unchained Melody, but who the judges eviscerate no less. Norman compares him to a Kia or a "fart at a funeral," things that feel good to laugh it.
Around this time, American Monkey starts to feel really uncomfortable. It's unclear why the judges are so brutal, save for the God figure from an imaginary booth above making them.
But Fred has a degree in Greek and Roman history, and a bone to pick, primarily with Norman. He pulls a gun, turning the audition into a Colosseum.
It becomes 90 minutes of capture. There is no intermission, and you feel held hostage with the judges, who are humiliated one by one. There are dozens of f-words, and the humor is crude. One song by Norman had people grimacing and shifting in their seats. It all builds to a heart-thumping finale that feels like a release in many ways.
Questions on my mind over the weekend:
Why did the only female character have to be nearly brain dead? But, wait. Was it commentary on how women are portrayed on television?
Why were the male judges so awful? But, wait. Were they the gladiators turning this into a bloodsport?
Why was the humor so grotesque? But, wait. Were we supposed to feel disgust for laughing at something we shouldn't?
Is it all just sophomoric? Or is it all bait to a bigger end? Am I overthinking the overthinking?
The answers will feel different to everyone, which is probably the real point of American Monkey. It's the kind of risk Freefall Theatre likes to take, uncomfortable bits and all.
It's still a work in progress from a first-time playwright. The ending was rewritten many times, Raud said, including shortly before the premiere. As it stands, the morality feels heavy handed, and the action could benefit from more subtlety and less screaming. Refinements may come in time.
In the post-show discussion, which you should stay for if you go on a Friday night when Freefall does them, director Eric Davis, Raud and the cast took questions from the audience, who looked both befuddled and pumped up.
"I don't think the answers are very easy..." Davis told them. "The payoff is if the audience realizes they've fallen into our trap and goes home and thinks about it."
Mission accomplished, there.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. Follow her on Twitter @stephhayes.