THERE THEY WERE
This is my fourth time seeing some iteration of James Monaco's work, and I feel absolutely no guilt in calling him one of the greatest storytellers in the world alive today, whose work you should track down. I don't know if I could be any more unequivocal than that.
(I know, I'm using up my superlatives this evening. I'm just excited by work I'm seeing!)
This is going to be a very simple review, because the work James Monaco does is incredibly simple. There They Were is a story told by a man in a chair (James Monaco) about a wedding in Long Island.
Right before the show, one of the audience members said of this work, "It's like a young Spalding Gray." I can't say I've had the honor of seeing Spalding Gray in the flesh -- something I've missed forever -- but I think it could be fairly apt.
It's seriously just James Monaco in a chair, and you will be sitting at the front of your seat the entire time. Each word is finely chosen, each gesture with his hand is finely choreographed. When he uses the palm of his hand to indicate one character, and a finger to indicate another, those body parts take on a life of their own. Each movement has an emotional depth and evocative-ness that makes even the simplest, most banal moment in the story take on a weight without James Monaco needing any amateur theatrics.
His tone is matter of fact, but the motions give the weight that lets you know that what you're listening to indicates a deep well of submerged emotion. In this sense, the setting is perfect -- the massive emotional tides that are stirred by a wedding that are shoe-horned into our most banal of rituals are perfectly encapsulated in this story.
It's music. Not metaphorically, literally. The voice is so finely choreographed, and he creates rhythm with the parts of his body -- sometimes incredibly energetic, sometimes subtly crafted. Sometimes it takes its inspiration from the music of life -- an incredible instructions dance called "Topple the Czar" -- and sometimes it takes its inspirations from the sounds that fill life -- a lonely woman's shuffling feet through an empty house.
What rituals do for us is they ground the mundane in a sense of eternity and weight. That's why we hold weddings: to remind us that this love is not just some squishy, temporary emotions: it's a moment being stretched out into eternity. So too does this story-telling: it powerfully evokes oral histories, a story that has been passed along so many times that it has become a structured, stratified ritual, that can be perfectly preserved... except that it can't.
The specificity also gives us the comfort and ability to look at the minute details. When James creates the slow sad shuffle of the woman through her house, or the sigh of men with cigars on a balcony looking up at the stars, we can believe so strongly in that moment that we can investigate each tiny detail. And yet, because it's not happening "for real" in front of us, we are really examining the details in our own imagination. How often do we get to put our own imagination up for such scrutiny?
Also, "Topple the Czar" is hysterical. Can't get enough.
I doubt that I've been able to do justice to the strength of the piece. If I could, I'd have James Monaco sharpen these words up for me.
Sorry, one thing else that I really love about James' work is the shift in protagonists. See, James Monaco creates an entire family line in this work, but amazingly he gives each of them equal space. Those characters who, at first, we only see as a joke or a background character (e.g. Gary, who had something terrible happen to him that nobody could quite remember) will, at some point, be given center stage, and suddenly those activities that we saw through mundate eyes before will be given the full emotional weight and complexity that was previously the purview of everyone else.
It's a method of story-telling that is warm with compassion, and creates a universe dense with emotions and weight.
(Dear FCC: got free tickets to this too. Thanks for asking.)