Freefall tackles dark side of reality TV with 'American Monkey'

In American Monkey, John Lombardi, left, Stefanie Clouse and Patrick Ryan Sullivan play a panel of judges in a talent contest. The show, at Freefall Theatre, looks at the meaning of fame and how far we’ll go to entertain ourselves.
In American Monkey, John Lombardi, left, Stefanie Clouse and Patrick Ryan Sullivan play a panel of judges in a talent contest. The show, at Freefall Theatre, looks at the meaning of fame and how far we’ll go to entertain ourselves.
Published March 11, 2014

Scene: Goth guy in platform boots sings, is terrible, begs celebrity judges to hand him a golden ticket to fame, and when they do not, he is devastated yet still eager to hug them. They are who he wants to be.

If it sounds familiar, it should. It's not American Idol, but Eesti otsib superstaari — "Estonia is Searching for a Superstar" — a show that carries the Idol diaspora into the tiny Baltic nation.

And it's Mihkel Raud's real life. On the series, Raud plays the mean judge, the archetype made famous by Simon Cowell, the brutally honest foil to any cloying enthusiasm from the panel.

Raud has worked on the Estonian Idol franchise for five seasons, and over that time, aspects of his job started to weigh on him. So he did what artists do. He wrote about his worries.

The result is American Monkey, a play that makes its international premiere this weekend at Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg. Since it's a new work, plot details are sparse, with folks at the helm offering mostly teases and promises of dark twists.

We do know this:

American Monkey opens at auditions for a singing contest called American Superstar. A young man named Fred (Chris Jackson) auditions, gets turned down by the judges (Patrick Ryan Sullivan, Stefanie Clouse and John Lombardi), and takes everyone hostage at gunpoint to get revenge "for a variety of reasons," said Freefall artistic director Eric Davis, who is directing the play.

The four actors make up the cast. The story moves fast without an intermission, and has adult language and themes. Freefall has tossed out the name Quentin Tarantino for a tone comparison.

The play is interactive, with the audience invited to sign up preshow to sing in front of the panel. And it's the one time you'll be told to keep your cellphone out at the theater, Davis said, for a voting element.

Remind you of anything?

• • •

The Idol phenomenon started in England in 2001, and it spun off the next year in America.

Though ratings have slumped, American Idol has survived into a 13th season. The format has been copied all over the world, from Armenia (Hay Superstar) to France (Nouvelle Star) to Pakistan (Pakistan Idol). It paved the way for scads of competition shows, in everything from cooking to fashion design to tattooing.

Raud says American Monkey is purely fictional and not about American Idol or his show in Estonia. But having an outlet to channel his concerns about his job gave him some sense of absolution.

"It was kind of a purification process for myself, doing the show," said Raud, 45. "I'm not a stupid person. I know what reality television feeds off of. There are tons of moral problems, issues, conflicts, things that people who do that sort of work need to face."

Those conflicts shouldn't surprise anyone who watches.

"The humiliations, and making a fool of people who may not be talented but are sort of innocent in many other ways," Raud said. "It is obviously problematic and full of conflict. You kind of lose sleep over that stuff sometimes."

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And there's the predictable casting. Adorable chubby kid. Vixen who sings sharp. Crunchy songwriter with heart of gold.

"Kids walk into these auditions," Raud said. "They never really know their fate, in most cases, has already been predetermined. If I'm sitting in a room and I see a kid walk in, I pretty much know whether he or she is going to go through to next round or not. There are things that make good television that unfortunately don't make you a good person."

Reality shows definitely stick to a formula, said Rachel Dubrofsky, an associate professor in the communication department at the University of South Florida. She studies reality TV and has written a book about another kind of competition show — dating — with The Surveillance of Women on Reality Television: Watching The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.

"It seems the shows follow a fairly consistent and predictable model," she said. "But at the same time, each season throws in some slight variation from the previous season to keep us on our toes."

That variation — the "disruption," she calls it — is part of the formula, too. It's the very thing that makes us believe what we're watching is real.

• • •

Raud is a musician, a very famous one back home.

He played in a punk band called Singer Vinger in the 1980s, when Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union. His autobiography, he said, was a huge bestseller in Estonia. But he's not a playwright by trade, so writing a play was a bit of a gamble.

His piece was performed in Estonia to good reviews, he said, but he knew it needed changes for American audiences. He took it to New York for workshops with Broadway producer Sharon Carr. She sent the script to her friend Eric Davis at Freefall, thinking it might be a good fit.

Davis liked the themes, that there weren't many plays like it. He liked the idea of trying something brand new.

"We're really about taking risks at Freefall," Davis said. "We do some things that are tried and true, that we know the audience will love and buy tickets to because of what they're called, and we often do something very unexpected with those, which is a risk. But it's a different kind of risk to present the audience with something they've never heard of and never seen."

American Monkey went through rewrites in St. Petersburg with Davis and playwright Natalie Symons. They examined how the play could work better as dramatic literature, how the characters related to each other.

The result asks challenging questions, Davis said. How do we define fame? What will we put ourselves through to get it? What will we do to others for our own amusement?

And ultimately, it asks, are we Rome?

"The more you know about the Roman Colosseum and entertainment, the more you can find parallels with reality TV," Davis said. "They're putting helmets with no eye holes over condemned men's heads, and they're throwing them into the lion ring."

The humiliation scenes have faded a bit in favor of more heartwarming fodder, Raud noted. For every shrill Goth, there's a single mother trying to get by. And some newer shows skip the rough hometown tryouts altogether. Less suffering, more stories.

"I've seen changes taking place and new forms coming up, like The Voice, which sort of slightly differs from American Idol," Raud said. "It kind of makes me happy that these things are loosening up a little bit, and the cruelty of reality television is losing its grip."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (727) 893-8716. Follow her on Twitter at @stephhayes.