Reality bites in freeFall's American Monkey

Mikhel Raud's new play muses on the barbarism of TV talent shows.

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HERE COMES THE JUDGIN': American Monkey’s Stefanie Clouse. - MIKE WOOD LIGHTING DESIGN
  • Mike Wood Lighting Design
  • HERE COMES THE JUDGIN': American Monkey’s Stefanie Clouse.

Are talent competitions like American Idol the depraved offspring of the murderous gladiatorial games of ancient Roman times? This is the question that animates American Monkey, the interesting but not entirely coherent play currently being offered by freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg.

What American Superstar contestant Fred (the superb Chris Jackson) wants us to believe is that there’s little difference between the bloodlust aroused in spectators at the Colosseum two thousand years ago and the schadenfreude experienced by viewers of reality game shows today. Of course, there’s all the difference in the world — nobody has to die at the end of a talent show — so in some sense Monkey has a problem at its core, and it’s one that’s never completely solved.

But there are also insights, especially about the coarsening effect of watching people embarrass themselves on TV night after night, and they make Monkey occasionally better than its shakier premises.

Mihkel Raud’s play — being given its world premiere at freeFall Theatre — has excellent acting by the four-member cast, first-rate direction by Eric Davis, and even a touch of audience participation, so the experience of the play, if not quite persuasive, is still suspenseful and at some moments satisfying.

American Monkey begins with Fred’s performance before three American Superstar judges: the unpredictable Alex (the fine John Lombardi), the space cadet Courtney (charming Stefanie Clouse), and the mean-spirited Simon Cowell-like Norman (swaggering Patrick Ryan Sullivan). Fred’s song of choice is “Unchained Melody,” and his rendition is tolerable. But when the judges vote against him, Fred refuses to leave the stage. At first, he plaintively insists that he needs another chance, for reasons including the unhappy situation of his mother. But when his second song is rejected, he pulls out a gun and forces the judges to compete against each other for their lives. As all of this goes on, a mysterious producer named Mustapha watches from an unseen control booth and lets the torture proceed because it apparently makes good television. As for the parallel with despised Roman practices, Fred refers to it angrily and often.

There are at least three problems with this scenario. First, the Roman abuses Fred decries don’t much resemble anything the judges have been doing, but do sound paradoxically like the contest that Fred sets up for the judges. Second, a relationship revealed between Fred and a judge is so unlikely that it only distracts from the gunman’s attack against reality shows. Third, Fred’s demand that the judges shed their clothes at one point leads to nothing, and seems mostly aimed at arousing the prurient interests of the theater audience. Yes, playwright Raud scores some points against TV talent shows, but the rest of the time doesn’t appear to have firm control of his material.

Still, the fine acting is strong consolation. And Matt Davis’ excellent set design includes a sharply detailed judges’ table and a convincing runway opposite it for the contestant. The uncredited sound design is right out of TV-land, and Eric Davis’ costumes couldn’t be more appropriate.

So, two thumbs up for the production. But one thumb down for the script.

Through March 30 at freeFall Theatre, 7 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., and 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun. $18-$46, students, teachers, seniors and military pay $15-$43. 6099 Central Ave.,St. Petersburg, 727-498-5205, freefalltheatre.com.

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