THEATER | Jon Ferguson’s “Super Monkey”: A theatrical zoo of outrageous characters

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When I was in high school, I had an afternoon job answering phones at my school’s front desk. Each day, a parade of people would come through and make conversation—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Members of the dance team would take turns coming in and complaining about each other, teachers would come in to crank out quizzes on the mimeograph machine (they weren’t supposed to use the more-expensive copier, but of course I’d “let” them), busybody parents would come trolling for gossip, and pretty girls would come in and giggle at me answering the phone (“Hello, St. Agnes High School, student speaking!”), then break down in tears and tell me about how their parents just didn’t understand. There was a poignant absurdity to the whole scenario, a poignant absurdity that is at the heart of Jon Ferguson‘s new play Super Monkey.

Super Monkey, Ferguson’s first show to be presented at the Guthrie Theater, casts the invaluable Jason Ballweber as Bill, a doorman at the Apex, a highrise condo complex that could have been modeled on those in the Guthrie’s immediate neighborhood. We watch tenants come and go; though most of them have a hard time remembering Ballweber’s name, he has become familiar with the most intimate details of their lives. A kind of plot sort of emerges as the connections among the characters’ lives become apparent, but the paucity of calculation behind the scenario is exactly the point.

The play’s title alludes to the tiny stretch of evolution (in the grand scheme of things, a timeline that is stretched invisibly before the audience at the play’s opening and conclusion) separating us from the simpler apes. As wrapped up as we all are in the epic dramas of our own lives, they seem insignificant when placed in the context of the many lives that touch our own, let alone considered on the cosmic scale of Time. Maybe, Super Monkey seems to suggest, we would all do well to slow down, smell the flowers, enjoy life’s small pleasures, and be a little nicer to one another.

The play was developed by Ferguson in collaboration with his ensemble, a working method he favors for good reason. Ferguson’s respect for his actors and peers has won him the adoration of everyone I’ve ever known to cross his path, and his productions are a joy to watch because it’s clear that everyone on stage is having a hell of a lot of fun. That dynamic undercut the dark message of his Animal Farm, I thought, and ironically there’s more genuine pathos in Super Monkey, a production that seems to be premised on every actor choosing an outrageous stereotype and having a blast with it.

All the actors in Super Monkey are watchable, but those that make the biggest impression are Ballweber, perfectly balancing dignity and self-effacing humor; Sara Richardson as the building’s architect (“Does no one,” she wails in despair, “sit on the urban resting wall?”); Dario Tangelson as a clueless janitor; and especially Owen Wilson lookalike Anthony Sarnicki as “the b-list celebrity.” Sarnicki’s vain character has several show-stealing moments, best of all a scene—the funniest I’ve seen this year on any local stage—where he boards an elevator in a tiny Speedo bathing suit. The scene becomes increasingly outrageous for a couple of dialogue-free minutes, and then there’s a punchline that brings down the house.

Ferguson is tremendously inventive with sets, and Super Monkey‘s minimal set (designed by Erica Zaffarano) very effectively incorporates backlighting and video projection. The original score, performed live by composer Tim Cameron, sets the production’s tone from the beginning, underlining the tragic element in the oft-farcical scenario.

The play ends with a dramatic development and emotional apotheosis, which didn’t quite work for me; Ballweber’s transition from gentle clown to noble sage seemed sudden, and the introduction of a physical danger seemed unnecessary—like ending a romantic drama with a car chase. Still, Super Monkey is a must-see for anyone who likes their theater to have a healthy dose of humor, a exciting feeling of discovery, and a profound sense of wonder.

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net, Twitter @ArtsOrbit) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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