Local playwright offers up his fifth full length piece at Studio Roanoke
Mark Twain shares his thoughts on the dirt and sludge of opulence while a developer dreams and drools over the prospect of creating greater monopolies. It is this opening moment in Kenley Smith’s “Monkey Wrench” that sets the tone for the darkly comedic play.
There is a serial defecator afoot, according to the police inspector who comes to answer the hilarious screams of Dollface, a real estate developer’s girlfriend, excellently portrayed by Kelly Anglim. The question arises to the existence of enemies, of which the developer has created many in his neighborhood. Amongst theories of ex girlfriends and business owners now out of business, a man is seen through the plate glass window, making another “deposit” on the patio. The serial defecator is no enemy, but an alcoholic homeless man by the name of Monkey Wrench.
Monkey Wrench carries the books “The Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer and “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote. He uses them as pillows, but he was a newspaper reporter, or an editor; he can’t remember, and admires the pinnacle of journalism the two authors have reached. A convincing drunkard, Barry Bedwell perfectly portrays a storyteller such as many of us have known and loved, one who is full of colorful tales and the desire to share them with drunken stutter.
Chris Shepard successfully plays Wrench’s outlandish companion, King Juan Carlos of Spain, in red velvet shoes and a number of crowns. Shepard demonstrates convincing indignation in character at the developer’s reaction to the men’s choice of bathroom facility and portrays a valid straightman with flavorful Spanish tongue. Shepard also plays the non-straightman role of the exuberant canine, Sam, in full hairy suit.
The developer has no patience for the homeless men, he is shallow and crass, cannot remember his girlfriend’s name, and even kicks his dog. He imagines himself stuck in a sick sitcom, complete with hearing a laugh track at inopportune moments. Owen Merritt plays this role with finesse as the developer loses his marbles and commits a grave crime, or two.
Act two is a spiral of guilty insanity where the developer is haunted by what he has done. Monkey Wrench’s voice is now steady and unstuttering, imparting gems of wisdom and “heartwarmin’ life lessons from a down-on-his-luck curmudgeon.” Together they watch a television show, a scene within the scene, where Normal Mailer (Gary Reid) and Truman Capote (Charles Reynolds) are interviewed along with the subjects of their wildly successful books. The battle between the authors is given a nod. Is this metaphor from the playwright? Both books were raw and emotional examinations of crimes and lives, which shed light on violence and killer’s remorse, or lack thereof. Regardless, a connection between the play’s sordid story, the characters’ reaction, and the books in question, is applicable.
Mark Twain (humorously portrayed by Gary Reid) reappears to expound his thoughts on being good, but lonely. Monkey Wrench pushes the developer to examine his own life through tales of outlook changing moments. In the crack of an instant, a desire for “unlimitless potential,” a classic Firebird, to be able to rewrite the ending of “King Kong,” world peace and a coke, perspective is born.
Laugh out loud humor peppers the play throughout, though serious moments and thought provoking situations balance it well. The acting is excellent with nary an obvious slipped line or cue. Kudos to director Will Coleman, stage manager Cate Carney, actors and crew, and author Kenley Smith.
The production ran at Studio Roanoke on Campbell Avenue, April 11-22. For more information see www.studioroanoke.org or call 540-343-3054 box office.
Kenley Smith is a Woodrow Wilson and Hollins University alum, currently living in the Bent Mountain area. He holds an MFA in playwriting and an MA in English and creative writing.
“Like most folks, I thought I was going to school for a diploma, to complete a process. Of course, the journey WAS the process. My last bout with higher education (the MFA in playwriting) allowed me to re-enter a creative community, which in itself is as valuable as any degree.”
When asked what he’d wanted to be when he grew up, Kenley said, “I don’t think I’ve grown up yet. I’ve meandered down quite a few side roads to arrive at this particular path. Deep down, I’ve always known I was meant to write, and right now the dramatic form serves me best.”
“Monkey Wrench” began as a character Smith developed for Roanoke’s No Shame Theatre. No Shame Theatre is a place where anything can happen…and usually does. Anyone can participate by bringing a five minute, original piece of acting, writing, singing or other performance art. Held on Friday nights on Church Avenue, Roanoke, on the Waldron Stage, at 11 p.m., audiences are welcome, and performers are encouraged. www.noshame.org/roanoke.
“Monkey Wrench was the first character I did at No Shame, way back in August of ’06. I wrote perhaps seven or eight pieces for him before I killed him off (or so I thought). “Monkey Wrench” – the play, that is – owes a great deal to those No Shame days. “Monkey Wrench’s” stories, the Capote-Mailer episode and the “I want” sequence all come directly from earlier pieces. Todd Ristau originally used King Juan Carlos of Spain as a character in a very formal, Gogol-esque piece; I loved the sound of that name, so my version of J.C. became one of Monkey Wrench’s buddies at the bus station. The developer and Dollface were conceived specifically to inhabit the new play, and it’s the developer’s arc that holds it all together,” shared Smith.
Smith played the role of artistic director at Studio Roanoke for the 2010-11 season. Studio Roanoke, at 30 Campbell Avenue, is “dedicated to new, exciting, and innovative theatrical works of the highest quality, we provide a space where writers, performers, and an audience can come together in a spirit of community and collaboration to expand our understanding of what is possible in the theatre.”
Smith said, “Studio Roanoke is a creative community. Community is the operative word here; it’s bigger than any one person, which is as it should and must be. We’ve come a long way in three years, and I like where we’re heading, too.”
Smith plays a slightly different role now, “I’m playwright-in-residence, which means I get to leave the administration to others and concentrate on what I do best. The position requires me to keep writing, which is a good thing. I’m one of those guys who can find myriad excuses not to write. There are no reasons not to write, by the way – only excuses.
“I’m also currently a playwright-in-residence this season at Tennessee Repertory Theatre in Nashville, TN. The play I’m developing there, “Empires of Eternal Void,” will receive staged readings in Nashville on May 31 and June 4 during the Ingram New Works Festival.
“I’m a playwright who doesn’t want to warm your heart or have you leave the theatre humming some toe-tappin’ feel-good song. Plenty of guys can do that. I’d rather see you stagger out a little bloody, a tad queasy, a bit worse for wear. I’d rather you leave with more questions than answers, because if you have questions, you’re engaged. You’re part of the process. I don’t even care if you like the process, as long as you’re affected by it.
“It’s odd. People seem to want the warm and familiar with their theatre. Known quantities. Retreads. Spider-Man. And I can’t – won’t – abide it. If I thought that was all theatre could offer, I’d pour my money down some other hole. But I don’t think that. I know that theatre can be fresh, provocative, incendiary, seditious, transgressive. It can be interesting. That’s what I aspire to write. And that’s what I hope to offer an audience, every time. You may not like it, but you sure won’t forget it. And hey, I’m really a nice guy, too.”
From a reviewer’s perspective: I liked “Monkey Wrench,” the play and the character, the message I received and the excellence in execution, and I liked the distinctive sound of the accompanying music to the tune of Tom Waits, to the point of dancing during intermission. That’s a successful production.