Gorilla Man: Puberty Can Be So Unkind

Poor Billy. At 14, he's woken up to discover that he's growing hair in all the wrong places. After hesitantly revealing the fur on his wrists to his sweet mother, we are treated to a droll recounting of how she ran off with the circus, where she fell in love with a Gorilla Man. Ah, but Gorilla Man's thirst for killing was just too great for her to bear; he was captured and sent to the Prison in the Mountains, while Mom waited for the day when little Billy would grow up and find himself on the wrong end of Fate's cruel joke. Mind you, this entire scene is done via slide show, replete with hilarious, tongue-in-cheek photographs and lay-it-on-thick delivery by Stephanie Bast as Billy's mom. It's at this point you realize that Gorilla Man takes its cues from a bad B-movie and turns it into something clever, witty and entertaining to boot. And did I mention it's a rock musical?

With a pared-down circus-tent set by Timothy R. Mackabee and acts announced on vaudevillian-like cardboard (with such titles as Act 2: In Which Billy Is Cast Out) this little off-beat production hits all the right campy notes. Suggesting the likes of Little Shop of Horrors, Bat-Boy and HBO's upcoming film Reefer Madness, Gorilla Man is at once parody and homage, a darkly comic and touching coming-of-age story about a boy, his fate and the tough choices in front of him, all set against the backdrop of a warped American landscape.

As Billy, Jason Fuchs plays the grounded one amidst all the chaos and sings a few brooding songs with his youthful voice. As he forges ahead in his travels and the inevitable quest to find his monstrous father, Billy encounters many freaky people along the way. Burl Moseley wears several hats, playing a creepy truck driver, a manipulative politician and a frightened guard, while Nell Mooney is radiant as first a fortune-teller and later as Alice, an insecure, inebriated girl with whom Billy shares a poignant moment on the side of the road. Then there's the angry mob portrayed by tiny action figures (although they're not credited in the program.) When Billy finally meets his legendary dad (Matt Walton) all hell breaks loose.

Gorilla Man was conceived and written by Kyle Jarrow (hey, you can trust camp to the guy who wrote A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, which won a 2004 Obie Award.) He is a master of blending wink-nudge schmaltz, irony and humanity, and he isn't just doing it from behind the scenes. Here he's at the helm, tinkling the ivories and backed up by Perry Silver on drums. When they're not playing music Jarrow and Silver add to the schtick as they interact with the cast, providing narrative, offering (often unsolicited) advice, throwing around cute repartee or holding up overly obvious props like a tape recorder reeling off Billy's internal thoughts ("Who am I? Is my father a monster? I wonder if there are girls who like hairy men?") The rawness of the show extends into the floor space, which adds an element of non-descript vastness to the whole traveling-circus-boy-wandering-the-countryside experience, while the costumes by Sky Switser also have a homespun feel that works.

Jarrow has created thoughtful pop-rock melodies anchored by edgy piano riffs and smart, soulful lyrics. Jarrow breaks out his chops for the open number, the "Introduction to the Gorilla Man", but mostly he and Silver support the cast. Of particular note is an aching ballad audaciously sung by Bast, which so drains her out she's left limp on the floor; "I Never Thought I Would Be", a well-crafted teen anthem sung by Fuchs and "I'm An Awful Man", a searing tune sung by Walton, who has a fine voice. And don't forget the amusingly cheesy "Prison in the Mountains Theme Song", which may remind you of something Paul Schaefer could write for the Letterman show ("There is a prison in the mountains, it's called the prison in the mountains, oh yeah!")

Suffice it to say, things don't end well (when do they ever in such situations?) and one might guess that Kyle Jarrow is a Fatalist, but for all its hints at life lessons, don't expect anything too deep or intellectual here; all the ensuing mayhem is done in the name of pure, cheeky fun. As the plot unfolds Gorilla Man pushes more and more of the envelope - the message gets hokier, the gore gets grittier, the cast is running on pure adrenaline and a grand old time is had by all, even if it doesn't have a Hollywood ending - and through it all you can't help but admire the show's honesty and over-the-top humor. At the very least, it may help cure those pangs you have to join the circus.

Photo of Jason Fuchs by Emily Wilbur.

GORILLA MAN by Kyle Jarrow, directed by Habib Azar.

 

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