Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury

Don't let the title fool you: Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury is filled with brave performances that will leave you feeling glad you went out to the theater. Jeff Lewonczyk, who writes, directs, and narrates, knows exactly what he wants, using trickster mythology and martial arts to explain evolution. He's also once again brought in Qui Nguyen (and Adam Swiderski), a like-minded pro from Vampire Cowboys whose fight choreography makes many of the jazzier segments pop like Sonya Tayeh's arsenal on So You Think You Can Dance. Lewoncyzk keeps the focus on our simian heroes by keeping the comic narration off-stage ("It towered above him, as only mountains can"), and the result is the sort of all-action show that's a blast from start to finish.

This storytelling choice works perfectly for Craven Monkey, because its heroes are as uncomplicated as it gets: they spend each day having sex. Craven Monkey (Adrian Jevicki) has a back problem, though, so when he finds himself teased for not being able to perform--especially since it's with the Lady Monkey (Jessi Gotta) he so adores--he flips her over and invents the missionary position. Ironically, while the other monkeys see, what they actually do is run him out of the village, where a fuming Craven Monkey decides (after observing a dung beetle) that he's going crush his rivals by rolling the giant boulder atop a nearby mountain over them. Little does he know that the Lady Gaga-looking Vital Spirit (Hope Cartelli) lives there, nor that he'll have to overcome her elemental minions to get there. Nor does he understand the strange banana-wielding Sensei (Art Wallace) and his seemingly senseless instructions to oppose his thumbs.

Because the characters never speak, there are many fine moments where we're as playfully in the dark as they are, led on only by the purity of movement. The cast is quite expressive, particularly Gotti and Becky Byers who plays a rival monkey continually trying to wriggle between the Lady Monkey and the men trying to nail her. Such clear motivations, tactic shifts, and frustrations are a delight to see on stage, and there's even less subtext to be puzzled out from a fist to the face. The musical selections set the stakes for each showdown, and Julianne Kroboth's terrific costumes help to accent each character's role and their general position. The Earth Minion (Fred Backus) is a skeletal bull; the Water Minion (Mateo Moreno) is a multi-tentacled monster on moon springs; the Fire Minion (Melissa Roth) is a fiercely skin-tight creature, flinging out red ribbons; and the Air Minion (Byers) is a spry, needling creature, propelled through the air like a bunraku puppet by two black-clad assistants.

As with the best kind of action theater, Lewonczyk and company continue to increase the stakes with each battle, keeping us entertained and--more importantly--invested. The momentum never flags, and even the romantic parts, in which Craven Monkey teaches Lady Monkey to walk, are exciting to watch, filled with a scrappy, balletic magic. The sheer ambition is more than enough to overcome the occasional lapses in technical prowess; besides, the fights are hardly supposed to be realistic. By the end of the night, Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury has not only scaled the mountain, it has carved its name into it.

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