As I walk into the Exit Theatre, it is as though I am entering the bowels of Hell itself-- the hallway narrows and darkens, and I find an empty seat in the tiny black womb of the theatre. The stage is small, the setting spare: a stool in the middle, a hanging cloak, and four grinning skulls contemplating the action that is about to unfold. I am vividly reminded of Faustian tales of men selling their souls to the devil in return for magical knowledge. In fact, the play I am here to see is just such a story: “The Monk", written by Nirmala Nataraj and directed by Stuart Bousel, is a tale of pride and lust, murder, torture, and incest, and the surrendering of eternal bliss for momentary pleasure -- all the ingredients for classic gothic horror.
“The Monk” is based on a book of the same name written by Matthew Lewis and originally published in 1796. The plot is a complicated one, following the seduction and surrender of a pious young monk (Ambrosio), and the adventures of two young men (Don Raymond and Don Lorenzo) doggedly pursuing their respective loves (Agatha and Antonia). The paths of these characters intertwine in bizarre ways, taking us deeper and deeper into horror and despair. Ghosts, gypsies, mystics, bandits, and Satan himself take part in bringing the characters to their ultimate fates.
The small stage and simple setting of “The Monk” provide an excellent backdrop for some talented acting and a very interesting production (although sometimes a little too small to contain the actors’ exuberance). Nataraj’s play is presented in a form reminiscent of ancient Greek drama, with the use of masks that often reflect the true nature of a particular character. Matilda, Ambrosio’s seductress, enters the monastery disguised as a young man named Rosario, wearing a glittering white mask. The mask is feminine and beautiful (indicating her true sex), yet also bears a striking resemblance to the bleached skulls that hang above the stage.
The character’s dual nature, woman in the guise of man, succubus in the guise of purity and godliness, appears clearly written across the face of the mask. The ingenuous use of these masks, as well as scarves, cloaks, and other multi-purpose articles, creates a variety of well-defined characters on the canvas of cast-off bridesmaid dresses and simple black. In addition, the skill of the actors makes the metamorphoses convincing and engaging, with most of the cast playing multiple characters.
The play itself stays quite close to the original story, cutting and fusing events to streamline the late 18th century convolutions of Lewis’s writing. Nataraj is quite successful at combining the important parts of the story into a smoothly flowing whole, changing very little of the plot, yet putting it in a form that keeps the audience engaged. She has, in constructing the plot of the play, jumped back and forth between the stories of Ambrosio and of the two young men in such a way that the action maintains a steady and interesting pace. In addition, the tedium and longwindedness of Don Raymond’s backstory is cleverly broken up by such an intertwining of plots, and is in fact given humorous treatment by Theodore, the servant of Don Raymond, who continually interrupts his master to give the expurgated version of events. This element of humor, also present in the novel, is cleverly inserted into other parts of the play and provides comic relief between intense scenes of Ambrosio’s spiral into sin. The addition of a chorus (another ancient Greek element) also serves to break up the sometimes interminable narrative of the original story, providing reflection on the actions of the characters as well as creating a general atmosphere of accusation.
Unfortunately, as the two plots converge into one in the second half of the play, most of the devices used to maintain the viewers’ attention appear less and less. One of the most effective devices, that of intertwining the two vastly different plots, becomes impossible as the plots become one, and the element of comedy becomes increasingly inappropriate as the gravity of the situation escalates. However, the possibilities for the chorus dramatically increases for the same reason, yet its somber and accusatory presence seems reduced.
As a result, the action begins to more and more resemble the tediousness of the original plot and never quite seems to build up to a satisfactory ending. Lewis’s novel ends with Ambrosio’s selling his soul to the devil and being torn to pieces at the very moment that he was to receive a reprieve. And who doesn’t love a character’s being torn to bits and carried off to hell? The play, on the other hand, closes with Ambrosio’s being tormented by the dead souls of those whose lives and innocence he has violated. I am not sure why Nataraj chose to remain true to the novel in almost all of its elements except this; while perhaps a fairly predictable ending, a bloody mangling by the devil is one that has many dramatic possibilities.
While the play has its faults, in all it is interesting and engaging, providing just the dark and lascivious experience one might expect from good Gothic horror. Perfect for Halloween-time.
The Monk at the Exit Theatre
Runs through 11/22
Friday and Saturday @ 8pm