Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Monsters of the American Cinema
Adams, a veteran of seven past Know productions, plays Remy Washington, a 37-year-old gay Black man whose marriage ended when Remy's partner Brian Miller suffered a heroin overdose four years earlier. As a result, Remy became the owner of Brian's drive-in movie theater and the caregiver for Peter "Pup" Miller, now 16, Brian's straight white son. Recent Xavier University grad Grant Zentmeyer takes on this complex role. He and Adams are well-matched as an unlikely pair. Remy is doing his level best to raise an angsty teenager in the San Diego suburb of Santee, a conservative Southern California town. Pup seems like a typically good kid, but he suffers from grief and resentment over his father's death, and he has nightmares that belie some deeper demons–literally.
The Good Time Drive-In specializes in weekend showings of double bills of classic horror films, and Pup is especially drawn to The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), the story of a misunderstood monster that he calls "so corny, but like a good corny." But Remy and Pup, living in a cramped mobile home adjacent to the drive-in, are deep-end geeks about this melodramatic noir film genre, and they frequently compete in a movie trivia game, rattling off movie titles based on a theme–titles, sequels, characters, first names, and so on–until one or the other draws a blank. It's common ground for a family formed by circumstances beyond their control.
Told through alternating scenes of staccato monologues and naturalistic interaction, Monsters of the American Cinema explores traumas that both Pup and Remy have suffered and still struggle with. Their recollections and nightmares of personal grief and pain use the cinematic monsters to metaphorically represent the very real monsters that have afflicted them: homophobes, racists, white supremacists, bullies, abusive parents. They both suffer from shame, a monster with the power to destroy.
Winters and her actors have clearly worked intensively to manage the characters' complex monologues, often delivered in interwoven and sometimes overlapping fashion. It's a powerful effect, especially as it's revealed that Pup has bullied a trans teen at his high school. Rem discovers this when he views some footage on a video camera Pup has been using–purchased by Remy after pawning a family heirloom, a pocket watch that he stole before leaving home after a beating by his abusive fundamentalist preacher father. Their confrontation after this is discovered is a difficult, abrasive moment. St. Croix's carefully constructed revelations and insights build to a cathartic dénouement that gives Zentmeyer a challenging opportunity to show off some extraordinary physical acting.
The production's other memorable aspect is the employment of projections and sound, designed by Douglas J. Borntrager. Numerous clips from the horror films are regularly projected as backdrops that illustrate or expand upon scenes. These are carefully and expertly matched with the live stage action, as are Andrew Hungerford's dramatic lighting effects. Borntrager's work contributes significantly to the show's powerful impact. (Clips of actual drive-in greetings and food concession promotions from the 1950s add both humor and texture to the play's presentation.)
Ultimately, Monsters of the American Cinema is about the challenge and potentially redemptive power of the love and bond between a parent and a child, even when forced together by unwanted tragedy. It's an exploration of how Remy, feeling his way through parenting, and Pup, wrestling with his own inner demons, relate and struggle to understand one another, even as their own deep needs are not fully understood.
This is not an easy show to watch because of several powerful moments of extreme language, physicality and behavior. It requires careful attention to the inner thoughts and overt actions portrayed by two extremely able actors. Nevertheless, Monsters of the American Cinema is an unusual production worth seeing, the kind of probing storytelling that audiences have come to expect from Know Theatre. It is to be hoped that Winters will return to stage more provocative shows in the future.
Monsters of the American Cinema runs through October 8, 2023, at Know Theatre of Cincinnati, 1120 Jackson Street, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit knowtheatre.com or call 513-300-5669.