Make us your home page
Instagram

Review: 'American Monkey' at Freefall is a squirmy, intense experience

From left, judges Alex, Courtney and Norman are confronted by Fred, a singer with more than auditioning on his mind.

Photo by Mike Wood Lighting

From left, judges Alex, Courtney and Norman are confronted by Fred, a singer with more than auditioning on his mind.

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 shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow her on Twitter @stephhayes.

.if you go

American Monkey

The play runs through March 30 at Freefall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Before each show, audience members can sign up to sing in front of the panel of judges. $20-$44. (727) 498-5205. freefalltheatre.com.

Review: 'American Monkey' at Freefall is a squirmy, intense experience 03/17/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2014 8:54pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Glen Campbell's wife Kim discusses challenges, guilt caregivers of Alzheimer's patients, others face

    Life Times

    If there's one thing Kim Campbell would change about caregiving for Alzheimer's patients, it's the attitude so many of us have toward transferring a loved one from home to a long-term care facility. According to Campbell, it's often the most kind, loving decision you can make. It's not a sign of failure, but one of …

    Kim Campbell, wife of country music legend Glen Campbell, is acknowledged by those attending the free event where she shared the story of her personal journey with Alzheimer???‚??„?s disease and the struggles she faced caring for her husband on Friday (5/26/17) at the Suncoast Hospice's Empath Health Service Center in Clearwater. Empath Choices for Care, a member of Empath Health, and Arden Courts Memory Care hosted the free event where Kim shared her story to help others understand the early stages, how the disease changes lives, the challenges families face and the role of caregiver.
  2. What happened when I took my dad to a Pitbull concert

    Music & Concerts

    TAMPA — "So, you know how you like Pitbull?" I asked my dad. "We can see him."

    Selfie of Divya Kumar and Anand Kumar at Pitbull/Enrique Iglesias concert.
  3. Tampa City Council votes to accept travel invitation from Cuban ambassador

    Blogs

    The invitation came to Tampa City Council chairwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin in a June 9 letter from Cuban ambassador to the United States José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez.

    The Tampa City Council voted 6-0, with Frank Reddick out of the room, to respond to a travel invitation from Cuban ambassador to the United States José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez.
  4. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for June 25

    Events

    St. Pete Pride Festival: The daytime festival covers Central Avenue's Grand Central District with more than 350 vendors, multiple stages, live music, art and food. 9 a.m., Grand Central District, 2429 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Free. (727) 342-0084.

    Kristen Whalen poses for a photo before the start of the St. Pete Pride Parade in St. Petersburg last year. It's that time of year again, so check with us for your planning purposes. [LUIS SANTANA  |   Times (2016)]
  5. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for June 24

    Events

    St. Pete Pride Block Party and Night Parade: St. Pete Pride's popular parade moves to downtown St. Petersburg's scenic waterfront. The block party brings DJs, food and drinks starting at 2 p.m. The parade steps off at Fifth Ave NE and Bayshore at 7 p.m. with fireworks at 9:45 p.m. 2 p.m., North Straub Park, Fifth …

    Thousands line the streets of Central Ave. during the St. Pete Pride Parade in St. Petersburg.  [Saturday, June 25, 2016] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]