by Brian Sonia-Wallace~
It’s hard, as a reviewer, to talk about a catastrophic play without a hint of glee. I apologize in advance.
For this assignment, I asked my editor to ‘find me the weird stuff’ in LA theatre. The Hundredth Monkey Effect seemed to fit that perfectly, billing itself as a sci-fi stoner comedy, complete with singing and interactive elements. I love interactive and experimental theatre for its potential. But to be truly ‘experimental’ and not simply ‘unconventional’, a show has to conduct an experiment—to do something novel for the sheer joy of discovering how the audience will react. I am also entranced by science theatre, in which characters and narratives let even the most woefully unscientific among us grasp difficult concepts and real-world experiments. Unfortunately this show is neither mad nor science-y enough to fill its own shoes, and seems almost apologetic about its own shortcomings.
There is a host, although there doesn’t appear to be any room for a host in the action of the play or even the remote need for one. On the night I saw the show it was Alicyn Packard, a voice actress, who sang some unrelated songs with her ukulele before the show started and read some bits of texts in funny voices between scenes. Her presence and function were never explained. Equally unexplained and confusing was a man who sat in the front row in drag from the waist down and passed out shots to the audience between scenes for a drinking game. This the audience was practically begged to indulge in until the play forgot about it halfway through and stopped giving us cues to drink.
Our host introduced the actors, Brad Harris and Emilia Richeson, and said that they too would be our hosts. At this point there was generally far too much hosting and far too little action for my comfort. Our new hosts explained more rules to us before launching into what was either a lecture or a scene, they didn’t seem sure which, on pseudo-scientific experiments. The experiments they explained were great, real-world debunked science that made me think. But it was entirely unclear who we, as an audience, were in the context of this performance. The actors were speaking right to us but even they seemed unsure as to why. The only thing I knew was that, for the first five minutes, every ten seconds I was being harassed to take a shot. As was the practicing Muslim friend I had brought with me, perhaps a poor choice.
In terms of plot, I can’t say much. There seemed to be an underlying vague notion that the actors were meant to switch bodies. This would make a great play, but in the one I watched it was only brought up three times, and then almost in passing, as a last-minute attempt by playwright Christina Cigala at dramatic structure. Instead, the actors devolved into tangents (including a bit of casual racism against Asians in the first scene that implied that they were responsible for women’s inequality, for some reason) and side-stories that were carried too far or forgotten.
Neither actor seemed to particularly believe their reality, acting with a sort of hipster self-awareness. And if the actors won’t suspend their own disbelief for a second, the audience doesn’t have a prayer. It’s a shame, because some of the characters and stories had intriguing potential: a Russian cosmonaut still floating out in space after his mission was a failure and the government wiped him and it from the record, a gay priest obsessed with killing gays to gather data on the weight of the soul, and a woman with alien hand syndrome, who couldn’t control what her right hand was doing.
There were songs. Not for any particular reason, but there were. They were well sung and adequately performed.
Halfway through the play the actors began to speak to the audience again and wanted interaction. This was funny (instructions on how to shout at a potato) and well done, but felt like the warm-up act to a truly interactive piece done as an afterthought, and I didn’t feel the audience had been prepared for it at all. We didn’t know the ground rules and so were hesitant to engage. But it didn’t matter, as this conceit too was dropped after five minutes and never resurfaced.
The finale tried to build up steam with the body-swapping idea, but its action happened mostly offstage. The host came on and left again. There was a completely unintelligible scene. And then the actors placed the final nail in the coffin of the play, forcing two (but only two!) audience members onstage to dance. As the audience members, unguided, found their ways back to their seats, the actors stepped off the stage to bow, and so bowed to us in the dark.
If the play had mustered up a couple more scenes about body swapping and forged a narrative arc, it would have worked. Each of the vignettes had an interesting hook, as did the central conceit, but none of them progressed. Had the play abandoned narrative and focused on the idea of mad scientists playing games with the audience, really exploring that dynamic relationship, it would have worked. But of the three interactions (drinking games, potato shouting, and awkward dancing) only the middle interaction worked or had any narrative tie-in, and none of them was novel or particularly well done. The Hundredth Monkey Effect had the effect on me of a school play, leaving me without enough substance to even be confused and just enough interaction to feel harassed.
I’m not sure whether to blame writer Christina Cigala or director/producer Samantha Shada for the squandered potential of this show, and feel awful saying anything bad about either of them as they were both incredibly personable and nice. With a great deal of tightening, refocusing, and discussion of what the play is actually about, The Hundredth Monkey Effect has the premise and the cojones to go far. It fills a gap in theatre—intelligent, interactive performance appealing to both the scientist and the waster in all of us. But as of this production, both the script and the staging are in need of a massive overhaul.
Sandy Fury designed the lighting, which was appropriate and contributed to the staging, except when the actors made their forays into the audience. Ashley Cole designed the set which, with its haphazard desk, giant pad of paper, and boxes labelled ‘SCIENCE!’, may well have been the most intriguing and humorous thing in the show.
The Hundredth Monkey Effect is performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm, and runs through May 5th, 2012.
The Attic Theatre is located at 5429 W. Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90016.
Ticket prices: $20 general admission.
Reservations online at www.attictheatre.org or by phone at (424) 258-5752.