Monkey: Prehensile Tales by Deke Weaver is not the traditional "well-made play" of Chekhov and Ibsen. Thank goodness for that.
Or thank Darwin, perhaps, since the current offering at Urbana's Station Theatre opened on the date of the naturalist's 200th birthday. Monkey shines in unpredictable ways.
Somewhat surprisingly, hope and imagination — even in a religious sense — are strong components of Monkey, while evolution is merely skirted as a topic. Playwright, performer, and director Deke Weaver is seen scribbling on two chalkboards even before the play begins. Thin, his balding head cropped to a quarter inch of hair, and wearing a monkey mask, Weaver writes the names of types of apes and monkeys as the audience enters and prepares for what would seem to be a lecture.
Occasionally, the name of a species gets erased from the board (facing extinction, perhaps), and a bell sounds. The cashiers and the woman doing calisthenics on the floor also wear identical half-face monkey masks.
Instead of a lecture, the audience receives a warm bath of ideas, of movement, of spellbinding storytelling that triggers images in the listener's head, images as vivid as the 50-foot woman knocking down power lines that you saw on television when you were ten and never forgot.
Monkey may have evolved from one-man shows, PowerPoint lectures, conceptual art, or a multimedia installation at the Whitney Museum Biennial, but it is a somewhat different animal. For one thing, Weaver acts and speaks like a true actor and his narrative sensibility is strong. He may wear a prehensile tail, but he also knows how to deliver a tale with punch.
He recounts the history of the brass monkey, a spurious definition for a device for holding cannon balls on ancient battleships. Snapping through a slide show with a device held in his paws, he shows us the traditional see-no-evil monkeys and a myriad of ape representations, from Cheetah to King Kong.
Once the chalkboards flip to become video screens, there is a looped video presentation of Wild Kingdom's Marlin Perkins tickling a chimp. Inevitably, the images turn to the concepts of greed — the monkey's hand that holds too much for his own good — and war, the activity that the naked ape, human beings, seem unable to avoid.
Dancer Jennifer Allen bisects the performance with a choreographed piece that transverses the simple set (designed by Andy Warfel), wearing a platinum mod wig, turning backward somersaults, and shaping the air with her hands in front of a sparkly scrim. Monkey is not the dazzling visual display one might get with an impenetrable Richard Foreman off-off-Broadway piece, but simpler and more humane. Later, a descending disco ball adds to the hypnotic atmosphere.
Weaver weaves a story, two stories connected actually, of a woman searching for truth, traveling to Borneo to find an orangutan in the wild — a woman who doesn't see the need for hope in her comfortable life, but who wants to do good and trapped in the chaos theory of the butterfly effect, realizes she has no control over suffering in the world.
In part two of the tale, Weaver transforms dramatically into a salesman from Brooklyn, talking to himself at the airport, complaining about the voices in his head before launching into an account of how his wife had levitated from her bed one morning. Thus begins a journey as holy and outrageous as the mythology of Hindu monkey gods or of 1950s Hollywood science fiction, redemption and sacrifice all rolled up like King Kong at the top of the Empire State Building. We are sent on our way with a dollop of Frank Sinatra singing "New York, New York."
At just 60 minutes, Monkey offers a compact, nuggety mindblower, never overly intellectual or pretentious. It's not artsy. It's the real thing.
At the Station Theatre, Feb 18–21, 8:00 p.m.