Pork Chop Productions’ new play Brilliant Monkey is an engrossing and intriguing show by actor and first-time playwright Al Dukes. Knowing that this is Dukes’ first play makes it all the more impressive, as it is a quietly ambitious work exploring some challenging territory.
The drama concerns two brothers reuniting after a decade apart. Gerard is a career soldier who has returned from combat in the Middle East with a brain injury after being caught in a bomb blast. Although mostly functional, he experiences memory loss and occasional confusion, problems which also serve to exacerbate his general emotional trauma from the war. Trying to relax in the park outside his repatriation hospital while he waits to be declared fit or unfit for duty, Gerard encounters Danny, his estranged older brother. It readily becomes apparent that Danny is one of the homeless, and clearly disturbed by his own inner demons.
As they meet repeatedly at the same park bench under a tree, these long-separated brothers have grown into two very different, and differently scarred, men. They struggle to reconnect, coming from about as different walks of life as imaginable, to say nothing of the deep personal issues which separated them in the first place ten years ago. Both men reach out and shrink away as they try to deal with their own problems with themselves, their lots in life, and each other.
The main storyline is punctuated with a small handful of odd, almost Pythonesque fantasy scenes which seems somewhat incongruous to the rest of the play, although are extremely funny in and of themselves. In what appear to be Gerard’s dreams, we see him standing to attention in a spotlight being addressed by his brother in the persona of the pompous Major Sneaky Maneuver, who issues him with a series of increasingly bizarre and wacky mission briefings, such as to construct himself Icarus wings and steal Kim Jong-il’s flag and replace it with trousers.
With the tagline “a comedy to make you cry”, Brilliant Monkey is not quite what you might expect. The play is generally too downbeat to be accurately described as a comedy, and although there are lighter moments it is only the few surreal interludes which are truly laugh-worthy (although they are big laughs to be sure). As to making you cry, well, although certainly moving the piece did not seem deeply tragic enough for that either.
Not to belittle Brilliant Monkey’s aspirations of hilarity and pathos, the play seems to create instead a much more detached tone. This is in no small part due to the text’s unusual method of scene construction. The show is comprised of many short scenes separated by blackouts and music, even though there are no set changes or significant usage of props. Virtually all of these normal, “real world” scenes (as opposed to the few comedic fantasy moments) are written in such a truncated way that, although fairly realist, they predominantly begin and end partway through an implied longer scene or conversation, almost like a filmic cut.
These sudden starts and abrupt endings to the short scenes result in some interesting dramatic effects, but the main consequence is that the play as a whole has a slightly disconnected, almost meditative feel to it. Rather than being totally immersed in the guts of this story one feels that we are being held at arm’s length, receiving tantalising snippets as though viewing through a keyhole. It is an interesting technique, and although its distancing effect can actually be quite rewarding, it perhaps may not have been what was intended. Furthermore, the play’s major revelation, although unsettling, did not seem to have quite the devastating impact that one would have imagined it might.
Much credit should go to Dukes for not only his writing, but also his splendid performance. His portrayal of Danny is subtle, multilayered and very touching, a strong portrait of a man damaged but not entirely broken by his past actions, who is trying to live life on his own terms despite significant obstacles. We see Danny in various states of mind - tentative, extroverted, despondent, drunk, and all too sober. Each rung of his emotional ladder is scaled by Dukes without ever faltering or seeming false. Additionally, Dukes briefly demonstrates his considerable comic talents as the hilariously warped Major.
No less excellent is Warwick Young as Gerard, who delivers perhaps one of the most downplayed examples of a character with a mental impairment you are ever likely to see. No “Rain Man” acting here. Young instead shows us a man who, although on the surface is more confident and assured of his place in the world than his brother, is in reality struggling with constant bewilderment, memory gaps and resulting depression and flashes of rage. An engrossing portrait of the tough, everyman Aussie male in a state of barely-suppressed crisis, Young is masterful.
Brilliant Monkey may not be altogether brilliant, but it is certainly a moving and superbly acted play that deserves an appreciative audience.
Pork Chop Productions & Riverside presents a new Australian play
by Al Dukes
Venue: The Old Fitzroy Theatre | Cnr Cathedral & Dowling Sts, Woolloomooloo
Dates: 1 Aug – 1 Sept 2007
Times: Tuesday – Saturday @ 8pm & Sunday @ 5pm
Tickets: $20 Concession, $28 Adult, $34 Beer, Laksa & Show
Special: Cheap Tuesdays - $16 Adult, $24 Beer, Laksa & Show
Bookings: (02) 9294 4296 or www.oldfitzroy.com.au/trs