Reality is a sometime thing in John Kuntz's latest play.
Imagine sitting in a theater, where you are watching the reactions of the other half of the audience opposite you, while eight actors are locked in a 10-foot-high cage sandwiched in between. Other than the actors, the stage is strewn with chairs, a dozen television screens...and a prone body at one edge.
That's the first uneasy glimpse of John Kuntz's latest dream play, Necessary Monsters, presented by SpeakEasy Stage at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. As the patrons file in, most of the cast members are engaged in warm-ups behind the chain-wire barrier. They will remain onstage, in view, for the entire performance of linked stories with no intermission and no curtain call at the end.
The best way to experience a Kuntz work is to give in to the images, poetry, and dark sides of his imagination, without expecting to make sense of the action until long after the stage lights come down. Scenes and characters drift in and out of your consciousness and that of the playwright's but in a nonlinear pattern. However, the disparate episodes gradually begin to connect, but you can never be sure that you have caught the intended meaning.
The arc of the play is the end of a journey on an airplane. As one of the actors, Kuntz plays the steward, making sure that the passengers remain in their seats. He will also morph into other characters: a waiter in a restaurant and a psychiatrist. The quartet of plot lines follows a film noir about a psychiatrist and his mistress who are planning to kill his wife; a horror flick about a masked serial killer who prefers to torture children with his meat cleaver; an encounter between a man and a woman who have previously met on the Internet, and a children's TV show that warns of the evil effects of drugs.
The characters intertwine in accidental ways that often are as difficult to decipher as their tangled conversations. Every now and then one actor breaks into a long monologue, a virtuosic display of talent as well as adding some background — not that the exposition fills in the gaps. The title Necessary Monsters, taken from a translation of Manual de Zoología Fantástica (The Book of Imaginary Beings) by Jorge Luis Borges, variously refers to a volume one person is reading, the title of the film, and the name of the television show.
The ensemble is superb, composed of Boston-based performers including Thomas Derrah, McCaela Donovan, Stacy Fischer, Evelyn Howe, Kuntz, Georgia Lyman, Greg Maraio, and Michael Underhill. Other than Derrah in the role of the anger-driven, entitled woman named Greer — a performance that's as good a reason to see the show as any — the rest take multiple roles. Lyman is a woman who is always frantically hungry, and Fischer appears as a waif who is on a cellphone in conversation with a man she will later be stalking. Howe alternates between the scheming mistress and the wing-clad, wand-carrying Fairy leading the TV show. They deliver the most memorable moments in a production filled with them, even if the bizarre coincidences that bind them don't always compute.
Director David R. Gammons, a frequent collaborator with Kuntz, must be credited for wrestling the playwright's ideas to the stage in a show that ranges from realistic scenes to epic fantasy. Scenic designer Cristina Todesco, lighting designer Jeff Adelberg, and especially sound and video designer Adam Stone also deserve high marks for transposing the Kuntz-Gammons vision into the physical landscape of a jail that might represent the constraints of each character's mind.
Although Gammons has likened Kuntz's manner of presentation to that of a Russian nesting doll, with each layer fitting into the next, sometimes as neatly as the parts may fit, they don't always make up a whole.