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Exploding Moments: Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury

Tuesday, April 20, 2010 Leave a Comment

(Photo: Ben Vandenboom)

Remember plays? How they're playful? How they're about people playing? I may have forgotten that a little amidst all the work of plays, only to be happily reminded by Piper McKenzie's
Craven Monkey and the Mountain of Fury. The sheer joyful invention of this dance/fight/play had me foolishly grinning from start to finish.

And so
Craven Monkey is the perfect way to restart our series, Exploding Moments. For those who may have (justifiably) forgotten, this series examines excellence in production through the prism of a single moment.

This time round, we're looking at Monkey's (Adrian Jevicki) battle against the Air Spirit(Becky Byers). We'll also hear from playwright/director Jeff Lewonczyk, co-fight director Adam Swiderski, and actors/arial aids Fred Backus and Mateo Moreno.

The Plot You Need To Know:
Monkey has lived a peaceful life of mating with his fellows when a bad back forces him to invent the missionary position. Exiled by his tribe for his sexual innovation, he wanders lost until meeting an enigmatic sensei who teaches Monkey some moves. Those moves may or may not protect him against a series of enemies set against him by the equally enigmatic Vital Spirit. After defeating the Earth and Fire Spirit, he faces off against the aerial aggression of the Air Spirit.

The Exploding Moment
: With the help of two other actors, the Air Spirit literally soars across the depth of the stage to pounce on Monkey's back. It was an exhilarating, hilarious, and beautiful moment that was the exact right escalation of the action. So how did it happen? Let's hear from the artists! (The interviews were conducted via email, and have been edited).

1. Jeff, you mentioned after the show that the structure of the play mirrored that of a video game. What do you mean by that, and how did it affect your work on this particular fight?

Jeff: From the beginning, as soon as we thought about doing a show for Fight Fest, I had video games in mind - probably because Nintendo is the closest I've ever come to actual physical violence. Still, one thing that I've always loved about video games, even more than the action, is the narrative hierarchy - the way they unfold with increasing difficulty and complexity from level to level. (I've always loved this in the aesthetic sense - as a player it often pisses me the hell off.) I knew I wanted to mimic that in the show by making each enemy the monkey faces more dangerous and unexpected than the last.

I also knew early on that someone needed to be in the air at some point - because why the hell not? - and that it was probably going to be Becky, with her dancer's training, her petite frame, and the fact that I really didn't care one way or another if she landed on her head and cracked her skull open. (Hope and I actually cast the show with people we wanted to work with and THEN figured out the details of the narrative - rather than the other way around)...

The music helped to shape the feel of the scene, needless to say. Even before we started rehearsals we had the entire show "scored" with preexisting tracks we wanted to use. The general musical theme Hope and I had in mind was indie rock instrumentals - we wanted things that were actual pop songs, with beginnings, middles and ends, that would be a couple of minutes long and fun to move around to. The piece we used for this number - "The End of You Too" by Metoronomy - was like manna from heaven - it had more of an 80s-arcade feel than the most of the other pieces in the show, but it was just so infectious and exciting - it made perfect sense to use as part of a fast-moving, gravity-challenged fight.

2.Talk about the soaring moment - what was the process in rehearsal of incarnating Air Spirit, and when did the lift with the Matt and Fred come into play?

Adam: Trial and error. :) Jeff knew he wanted the Air Spirit to fly, and to make that a big part of the fight. So, it just became a matter of figuring out exactly how that was going to work in practice. We pretty much figured right from the beginning that it would require the work of multiple actors to make the effect happen, despite my insistence that a complex and expensive bungie system would be fine. From that point, it was a matter of deducing what the effect would be. At first, we toyed with having the supporting actors keep the Air Spirit aloft, hovering, for extended periods of time, but that proved ineffective and too difficult to allow for the actors to do the requisite storytelling. What was settled on was this sort of bounding action that, much to our delight, ended up being more energetic and compelling than the alternative...

Mateo: ...the fight was choreographed up to the point where Becky would take off and fly. Knowing that we needed to really deliver the wow factor Jeff wanted, and to deliver something that was just as fantastic as the rest of the fight choreography, all who was involved (Becky, Adrian, Fred, & myself) came in early to one rehearsal. And it was one of those magical theatre moments where four minds literally completed each others sentences and thoughts and we figured out the entire fight sequence right there in a little over an hour. Jeff & the rest of the cast then came in, we showed him our full idea, and he loved it. After that, we showed Adam and Qui and they too approved. It's absolutely one of my proudest theatre accomplishments to date...

Adrian: Becky's an amazing dancer and actor and the best part about this scene, for me, was that we got to dance together. Adam came in and gave us fight choreography. Then he left and we just danced it. More so than the other fights, we were given the leeway to play with the song musically. In all the fights, Jeff wanted the structure of the song to inform the structure of the fight, but in this one he let us give in to the music and let it inform our movement. Also I think Becky and I were both just dying to dance a little. We ran with that feeling and found a really exciting rhythm and energy.

Becky: Aw, thanks, Adrian! I couldn’t agree more about the desire to just let loose and dance. I was so excited to have another fellow dancer to play with!

...Ultimately, as Mateo has mentioned, the majority of the piece ended up being born out of one rehearsal. We came in early and it was like a muse was speaking to us. We all started riffing off of each other’s ideas and in one night, boom! There was the entire piece, completed. I remember leaving that rehearsal feeling ecstatic.

3. One of the things I loved best about the fights was how well acted they were. How did you find all that detailed nuance among such furious fighting?

Adrian: Practice.

Becky: Yes, practice! Once you no longer have to think about the steps, then it’s no longer mathematical in nature, so you can stop thinking about it and just have fun. I got to giggle and bounce around on stage, so I really *was* having a great time kicking Adrian’s ass….well, until the end. I still disagree with the ending. Sorry, Adrian. ;)

Fred: To me it's not all that different from regular theatre (i.e. theatre that talks) - where you have a character and you've figured out how he or she talks and now you have to say these specific lines as that character. With this, you have a character who you've crafted to move a certain way, and now you have to execute those moves as that character...

Mateo: ...the fights were so elaborate, the costumes were so elaborate, that if the acting wasn't nuanced, the fights would look not only sloppy, but not nearly as exciting or compelling. We as a group didn't ever want a fight to look completely comical or silly. Sure, there are comic elements to each fight, but they should first and foremost be thrilling, both to the actors on stage and to the audience. And in a real fight, no matter how crazy it gets, your only focus if you're intending to win is your opponent, and you're not playing to anyone else, which means you're not being broad. You're actually quite subtle. So you have to think of it like that.

Adam: The credit for this goes to the actors, so their answers probably bear more weight than mine, but I'll just chime in and say that, as a fight choreographer, it is really important to plot your fights with telling a story, and allowing the actors to tell a story, as the central conceit. You can have the most athletically impressive fight in the world, but if it doesn't allow room for character and storytelling, then it's going to end up lacking.

4. The Air Spirit's death is more brutal than the demise of the other three Spirits. How did that choice happen?

Adam: I'm not sure I share that sentiment - I think each spirit goes down in its own particularly visceral fashion. That said, as New Yorkers, I think we've all had a run-in with that bug that JUST...WON'T...DIE no matter how many times you smack it with your shoe.

Adrian: I thought they were all brutal. Maybe the size differential made it seem more brutal. Or Becky's cuteness. Who wants to see Becky get killed in that cute little green bug spandex number? I had to access some dark places in order to execute that kill.

Mateo: Becky pissed Jeff off one too many times in rehearsals.

Becky: Jeff hates gingers.

Seriously though, I think the main reason why it seems like the bug got it worst was because there is a great story arc to the fight. It isn’t the minion who starts the fight in this one, it is the monkey. It’s the hero who tries to squash the bug without being provoked, which may add a layer of “vulnerability” to the character.

He did stomp on my head with relish, didn’t he? Bad monkey…

I still get teased for that little green outfit, by the way….

Fred: Hey, I got my neck snapped! I'm just not as cute.

5. Was doing this play as much fun as it looked?

Adrian: Depends on which body part you ask.

Adam: From a fight choreography perspective, it was a great and fascinating challenge. Qui and I were fortunate in that Jeff had a clear vision for the character he wanted to impart to each fight, and in having such a talented and game cast of actor/fighters to work with. From there, it was like opening the toybox, rummaging around in various styles - capoeira, gorilla-style kung fu, praying mantis kung fu, snake-style kung fu, and plain, old, brutal brawling - and throwing them into a melting pot to create something that had a unique voice in terms of physical violence. What's not to like about that?

Becky: God, yes! I love this show with its creativity and athleticism and absurdity! It's the kind of show that can appeal to a lot of different people. I feel so honored and privileged to have been a part of this project and to work with such wonderful people. Even Jeff. :)

Fred: Yes.

Even more so. If we, and I'm absolutely speaking for everyone else by saying this, could do a weekly run of this show, it would be absolutely thrilling. Not only is the show enormously fun, but it's compelling on every level as an actor. I haven't been as proud of anything theatrically than I have with "Craven" in a very long time.