Like its confused hero, this rock musical doesn't seem to know what it really is
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Dec. 12, 2008
through Dec. 20
Gorilla Man is a show about a creature who doesn't know exactly what he is: Human or gorilla? Boy or man? Innocent or villain? Similarly, it's a play that has an identity crisis of its own: Vaudeville or high art? Musical or live music show? Melodrama or comedy?
After viewing the show on its opening night, it's hard to answer any of those questions.
Fourteen-year-old Billy (Bobby Torres) wakes up one day to discover he's sprouted dark, tufty hair on his hands. Horrified, his mother (Jen Brown) reveals the truth: His father is a half-gorilla carnival freak. Billy runs off in search of his imprisoned father (Benjamin Wright), who enjoys the occasional murder spree. Billy winds up causing some mayhem and death, too. Together, they kill some more. Then they go back to Mom.
What we're left with at the end is hard to say. Nothing in Kyle Jarrow's script investigates what makes a man vs. a beast, à la The Elephant Man, or how society makes its own monsters, à la Frankenstein, with any depth. Instead, Gorilla Man is a freak show with vaudevillian touches and a script that might have made it to the B-circuit back in the day. Where the production might have played on the audience's thirst for sensationalism or on the corny conventions of vaudeville, all that ekes through is an emcee without much to do and a couple of cute girls in sexy costumes and feathers in their hair.
The Vestige Group, which produces Gorilla Man, makes a point of declaring itself a company "for audience members who don't normally go to the theatre." As a critic, by definition, I'm not part of that demographic. It's hard not to compare the show to other productions or to consider it in the broader context of theatre.
Vestige is perhaps seeking to avoid the intellectual obscurities that alienate some people from the theatre. It may hope to provide an alternative to the many mainstream plays that seem to focus year after year on the complexities facing older adults, rather than the younger generation who never buys theatre tickets. Yet what plays do people want to see performed onstage if they don't care about theatre?
That's a difficult question to answer. Gorilla Man, which Vestige is staging at Creekside Lounge, a live-music venue, may have its audience. After all, who doesn't enjoy watching antics from an actor in a gorilla suit? As staged by Susie Gidseg, the show is a disorganized romp, but there is a certain appeal to seeing the full-throttle enthusiasm of an energetic cast.
Yet in the end, what Gorilla Man lacks is that good old-fashioned stagecraft. Actors wander and shuffle about the stage without direction. Some of the action is flat-out impossible to see, staged on the floor at the feet of the front-row audience members. Most the cast members go off-pitch during the songs, unable to hear themselves over the live threepiece band.
If the Vestige Group wants to introduce to the theatre new audiences with new ideas and new interests, then by all means, bring them in. The theatre needs young companies like the Vestige Group to do exactly that. Yet in trying to establish its hybrid identity, Gorilla Man rejects what is useful in conventional theatre. This creature might have been so much more.