Literature 8-4-2006

Fringe Shorts: Monsters in America

Jaime Kleiman, theater critic (as well as dramaturg! See article elsewhere on this site), posts the first of our Fringe reviews; watch the site for more as they come out.

The Minnesota Fringe

Puppets are like two-years-olds: they say the darnest things. And, like two-year-olds, they get away with it because they’re cute and seemingly innocuous. In Monsters in America: Puppets of Mass Distraction, you see the same phenomenon. What the show lacks in cohesive narrative, it makes up for in chutzpah. The Sesame Street-style performers can say almost anything (including a string of “Fuck y’alls!”) and it seems funny coming out of their mouths.

The humor in Monsters—in the whole show, in fact—aims to serve a higher purpose. The puppets’ community is made up of all the things that the human world has: inexplicably cheery newscasters, rebellious teenagers, sycophantic workers, soulless spin doctors, and, of course, The Corporation—here represented by a paranoiac C.E.O. who’s gone into hiding (in a cave, no less!) to avoid the StayPuff Marshmallow Man-type horror he’s unleashed on the land. Confusing? Yes. Is the cave dwelling C.E.O an Osama Bin Laden reference or just the creators trying to be witty? Anyway, it gets a chuckle.

The story is told by alternating live scenes with pre-recorded T.V. newscasts. Videographer Nathan Lyke’s smartly altered Fox News footage seems just as authentic—and ridiculous—as it does when humans do the talking. The media, you see, are brainless pawns, impotent marionettes that are subject to the machinations of those who control them.

Terror sweeps the nation when The Man pits a monster named Crushed Fist against the rest of society. The petrified public turns on the entire monster race and vows to “send them home.” Eventually, the monsters are sent to a detention camp in Maui called “Monstrosity Bay,” which, in addition to detaining the monsters, also imprisons homosexuals, monster sympathizers, and, one would assume, lots of tropical fruit (the camp is located in a Dole pineapple plant). The metaphor is mixed: one minute we’re talking about terrorism, the next immigration. But then again, our own President mixes metaphors all the time. Who am I to wag the dog at minor syntactical inaccuracies?

The message of the play is best encapsulated by the video footage of F.D.R. that Lyke plays at the top of the show. “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper,” Roosevelt famously said in his 1933 Inaugural Address. “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror…”

But Roosevelt’s speech was not a rallying cry against the “War on Terror” or the “Threat to the American Way of Life” or the “Sanctity of Marriage.” It was, rather, an affront to laissez-faire capitalism, the kind of world where money comes before morals and human kindness.

“How long will the inconvenience last?” asks a frightened puppet as she watches the fear-mongering newscasts. “When will we return to our regularly scheduled programming?”

The answer is never. A nation can only move forward, no matter how uncertain its future.