By Leia Squillace
Dana Block’s storytelling venture, “Monkey Man,” unfolds the origami of her personal relationship with her brother, and her loss of that relationship. In this brief show, we are given a glimpse into Dana and Mark’s joint upbringing, Mark’s struggles with schizophrenia, and Dana’s resulting negotiation between holding onto a loved one and knowing when to let go.
The audience meets Dana in adulthood, after she has not seen her brother for twenty years. He had struck out on his own to “hit the highways” and fulfill his mission of keeping truckers entertained and informed on their commutes. The bulk of the play exists in narrated flashbacks, prompted by Dana’s procrastination to knock on the door of the motel room where Mark is rumored to have been living. Through anecdotes, and a stellar air guitar performance of “Barney the Blues Man,” Dana introduces us to Mark’s quick wit and unfathomable creativity, even as his brain begins to pull him further away from the reality that the rest of his family exists in.
The play’s string of disconnected anecdotes chronologically reveals Mark’s struggle with his mental health. As schizophrenia’s grip tightens on him, Mark’s tether to reality is let loose. Ms. Block hauntingly delights the audience with stories of her brother’s adventurous and imaginative life. One highlight details Mark’s clever attempts to avoid the consequences of locking the family cat in the car after taking it on a joyride.
Indicated by the simplistic blocking ‑ the performer stood centerstage for the duration of the production ‑ this piece belongs to a storytelling style of performance that emphasizes the weight of the words over their visual presentation. With limited production elements, save one light cue indicative of a motel window, Ms. Block’s vivid and poetic language is allowed to sing, unhindered by visual distraction. Clearly, Mark’s expert finessing of words is a family trait.
In Ms. Block’s attempt to capture the erratic storytelling nature of her brother, however, the audience is often left playing the same catch‑up game that Dana and her family were stuck playing with Mark. Transitions between anecdotes felt disjointed and even frantic at times. I found myself spending as much time deciphering the context for each story as enjoying the story itself. This could be attributed, in part, to the seemingly hands‑off direction of the piece, which did not ask much from Ms. Block by way of differentiation. In portraying dialogues between multiple characters, Ms. Block struggled to physically and vocally distinguish the two parties, resulting in muddled and unclear interactions. I was often left feeling distanced by the artifice of Ms. Block’s performance, rather than engaged by the authenticity often present in autobiographical storytelling shows. Ms. Block’s portrayal of a younger version of herself, in fact, felt the most distanced from reality, leaving me hoping that she would step out of the way to make more room for Mark.
The performance clicks into place when Ms. Block strips away her impersonations and literary embellishments, and simply talks about her experience. It is apparent from her vulnerability in these moments that only she could perform her own personal story, and it is a privilege to be let into her world. When this raw honesty is revealed, its gravity is gripping.
Written and Performed by Dana Block
Directed by Bryn Magnus
November 1 at 7:30 PM
Photo credit: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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LEIA SQUILLACE is a director, devised theatre artist, and arts engagement administrator. Leia has developed new plays such as “GOOD KIDS” (Naomi Iizuka), “THE TRAIN” (Irene L. Pynn), and the Kennedy Center National Undergraduate Playwriting Award winner, “FAIR” (Karly Thomas). Most recently, Leia co‑developed a one‑woman show, “I KILLED THE COW,” which is currently touring nationally.