Next Lab

In the Next Lab’s first production in their 40-seat “black box,” Dexter Bullard took an interesting but weak script–John Godber’s episodic, essentially plotless Bouncers–and transformed it into a first-rate production. The play ran for nine months and earned Bullard a reputation as one of Chicago’s up-and-coming young directors, a reputation so solid it was hardly shaken by his disastrous updating of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Infusoria.

Bullard works magic again in Here Is Monster, with a script that’s significantly richer and stronger. Brock Norman Brock’s dark, nasty play is about a gargantuan brute of a man, Massimo, who beats his wife, abuses his mistress, and murders a stranger’s wife as casually as you might squash a roach. Eventually he’s sent to prison for destroying a man’s cart–a bit of heavy-handed satire here. Confined to a cell so small he cannot stand upright, he decides to change his ways.

Taking a cue from Bertolt Brecht, Brock cleverly takes characters who would be at home in a folktale–Massimo could pass for the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk”–and forces them to confront modern and sophisticated situations. So Massimo comes face to face with the true complexity of dysfunctional relationships; when he returns home, he finds that neither his wife nor his mistress can deal with him now that he no longer flies into rages or brutalizes them.

The true power of Brock’s play, however, lies not in the story but in the dialogue. Breaking from the increasingly stuffy conventions of naturalism, he returns to the tradition of giving characters a poetic, exalted version of everyday speech. “Nothing can spring from monster but monster,” Massimo’s wife snarls at one point in the story. “And birthing monsters is like birthing a fistful of razor blades.” Such lines reveal far more about Massimo’s wife than any mere transcription from daily life ever could. Equally revealing is the eloquent speech Massimo delivers after committing his first murder: “I straighten to my full monster height and inhale to my full monster breadth and regard with my proud monster eyes my new destruction.”

There are two potential traps in Brock’s word-drunk play. One is that in the mouths of inept actors such brutal poetry could sound laughably pretentious. The other is that in the hands of an inept director the play would not be as interesting to the eyes as it is to the ear.

Happily, Bullard and company have created a visual world every bit as rich as the play’s language. For example, most of the play is performed on a huge disk-shaped stage (designed by Robert G. Smith) that resembles nothing so much as a gigantic tree stump–an image that underscores the rustic quality of this modern folktale while subtly reminding us of what Massimo refuses to face: that being the biggest, baddest thing around is no protection against being cut down.

Smith’s expressionist lighting complements Brock’s words. When Massimo tries in vain to persuade his wife that he’s no longer a monster, Smith lights him in such a way that he is obscured by a huge shadow. For the duration of the scene we see him the way his wife sees him, as a huge menacing form. No wonder she doesn’t believe him when he says he’s “less brutish.”

But the actors, Daniel Ruben in particular, deserve the most credit for the success of this show. There’s not a miscast actor or a badly directed moment in this production. The tall, stout Ruben not only looks the part of Massimo but also is flexible enough to play all sides of his contradictory personality: his eloquence and his brutality, his love of violence for violence’s sake, and his pathetic need for understanding and forgiveness. In Ruben’s versatile hands, one of the most revolting characters we’ve seen cross a Chicago stage elicits our sympathy while provoking our sense of outrage.