Monsters of Man: A Supernatural Anthology is a collection of nine short plays by writer-director Sarah Ruttan, and produced by MB Stage Productions. It is a seated theatrical performance with no audience interaction. A world premiere for the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2019, the show combines horror, sci-fi, and a healthy dose of surrealism throughout its one-hour running time. Each story explores a connection between this world and another, often (but not always) to the despair of each protagonist. It’s a stranger Black Mirror, and a more intimate Lovecraft.
The show is at its best when walking the line between the weird and the familiar. “Heartbeat” tells the tale of a grieving widow (Layna Martinez) attempting to reconnect with society, only to be visited by the lost soul she had nearly laid to rest. “Waiting Room” is a quiet, sweet sci-fi story about a mysterious medical procedure – a merciful exit for those who can no longer walk their current path. Anthony Kyoshi LePage, Marcus Rucks, and Noelle Hensler stand out in their small roles as kind social workers guiding their patients into the unknown.
A strange but stirring segment is “Gate,” a surrealist meeting between two characters named Woman (Heidi Shon) and Man (Marcus Rucks). The two are separated by an invisible barrier that neither seems eager to cross. On top of that, each one is seeing and hearing completely different things on the other side. Though the story is difficult to track, it’s an intriguing and creative premise that begs to be explored more deeply – though perhaps not too much more.
The most effective piece of the bunch is “Blind Date,” a truly excellent dialogue between a young woman named Chris (Noelle Hensler) and her love interest Maddie (Makenna Rae Tynan). The two are so infatuated with each other after a year of online communication that when Maddy asks Chris to wear a blindfold for their first meeting, Chris accepts without reservation. The staging of “Blind Date” is remarkably clever and effective, using subtle lighting and the barest glimpses of Maddie pacing the background to make our imaginations run wild. When it reaches its surprising-but-inevitable conclusion, we are left with a striking and memorable image and a delightful chill.
On the other hand, some of the stories suffer from excessive familiarity or excessive abstraction. The weakest story of the night is “Flesh,” which follows a small band of survivors navigating a zombie apocalypse. While it does a respectable job of setting a dark tone for the show, it leans hard on tropes and begs for even the smallest twist. Ruttan’s distinct voice seems to be absent from this one, and it is sorely missed. Conversely, two of the monologues, “Countdown” and “Hello,” are a bit too obfuscated to have an impact, despite admirable and committed performances from Anthony Kiyoshi LePage and Heidi Shon, respectively. We spend so much of our time trying to work out the context of these scenes that it is difficult to sympathize with the characters’ present troubles.
Ruttan’s voice as a writer-director is strong, unique, and more than welcome. She seems most interested in playing with the rules of each world, and has a natural talent for parceling out information at just the right pace. She also manages to weave in social commentary and allegory, always tasteful and in service of the narrative. While her dialogue can be stiff at times, her big ideas more than make up for it, and it’s exciting to imagine future work where she finds a balance more consistently. That said, Monsters of Man contains a handful of lingering images and ideas that make it easily worth the price of admission.
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