BWW Reviews: DONNIE AND THE MONSTERS - The Perversities of Puberty
"I don't like P.E. class," Donnie says as the lights come up in the thirty-five seat house, UNDER St. Marks. An instant later, he is hit by a barrage of dodge balls from all corners of the tiny space. "I don't suppose I have to explain why," he says.
Horse Trade Theater Group's production of DONNIE AND THE MONSTERS by Robert J. Gibbs and directed by Heidi Grumelot explores the pubescent escapades of the woefully "uncool" Donnie (Richard Altmanshofer) as he navigates P.E. class, Lunch, bullies - and monsters.
Donnie has a tough enough time as it is. The school bully, Tommy DiMarco (Paul Herbig) won't leave him alone, not to mention that the only person who will sit with him at lunch is the insufferable Ellen - who smells like tuna. But more troubles await Donnie at home in the form of a sarcastic white gym sock (Herbig) and the downtrodden Monster Under the Bed (Matthew Wise) who's glowing eyes and Freddie Kruger fingers lie in wait to eat Donnie whole.
And Donnie doesn't have to explain why. The popularity contest of youth after all, is a mystery.
"I don't know when it became so important to be cool," Donnie says. "Its like I was absent from school and when I came back the whole class had learned something that I didn't."
Even the gym teacher, Mr. Alfusen (Yury Lomakin) can't help but point out the obvious. "The other children. They don't seem to like you," he says. And so it begins. Donnie embarks on a quest for cool, consulting the unlikeliest of sources including the entertaining Mr. TeeVee also played by Matthew Wise.
Much of the play's depth comes from its three female characters, all played by the able J.B. Roté who embodies the eccentric Mrs. Spizacky, Donnie's after school babysitter, Ellen and Donnie's single working mother. The women that color Donnie's life are his greatest supporters, to whatever degree he might realize it.
As the story grows darker, Donnie's quest veers toward mere survival in an unfair world. The most compelling moments come from the interactions among Tommy, Donnie and Ellen. Their scenes can be humorous, yet they reveal the startling capacity of children to be truly and intentionally cruel.
In a meta-theatrical moment, Donnie admits that he likes to imagine living his life in front of an audience because he finds the thought comforting. "If I'm the main character then nothing too bad can happen to me," he says in what becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. While I certainly did not wish our hero ill, it seemed to me that the play revolved around the discovery that this is not always the case.
As more fantastic characters enter Donnie's world, the story becomes a bit more didactic, and its abrupt, moralistic end undercuts the nuance of the play's finer moments in an attempt to sum the whole tumultuous middle school experience into one neat lesson. The play stalls when it shies away from confronting the complexities of kids - their obsession with sex, their incredible desire to be liked - and by extension, adults as well.
Middle school, or life for that matter, is not simply good vs. evil or the underdog triumphing over the bully. The play shines when the lines are blurred enough to see that there is a little monster in all of us.
DONNIE AND THE MONSTERS plays UNDER St. Marks through September 18.
Photo Credit: Nicole Gehring