I woke up in a strange place

By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
See also: a novel about a monkey.

March 28, 2010

Eleven years ago, I wrote and directed a play called "Monks in Trouble". (Here's the script.) I was a student at the University of Illinois, of the Urbana-Champaign variety, and a member of the Penny Dreadful Players, who were (and are) a student theater troupe that could pay for your flyers, props, and costumes, and could get you free performance spaces in campus buildings. It was a grand old time, and the bands Very Secretary and Demoted to Hugs rocked in accompaniment. Today, you can see members of the cast and the bands in projects musical and otherwise like The Laureates, Favorite Saints, The Fling, and The Show 'n Tell Show.

One of the original cast members, Rory Leahy, recently asked for permission to put on a new production of "Monks in Trouble", and I happily agreed. It was the first production for his new theater company, American Demigods. I wasn't involved with the new production after granting permission, and hadn't read the play since the original production. (It takes a few years before I can enjoy reading anything I've written.) I've been busy as a writer in the years since the original production, but for various reasons, I haven't been inclined to get involved with theater again. So it's not likely I would have ever re-mounted the show myself, and that's part of why this production was such a pleasant surprise.

Monks in Trouble marquee (2/19/10)

"Monks in Trouble" ran from February 12 - March 20, 2010 at the Apollo Theater in Chicago. I saw it during the second and fifth weekend, and was delighted with the show both times. (Although I'd begun to re-edit the script in my head by the second time I saw it. And my younger self was definitely over-enamored with swearing. Well, shucks.)

I'd written the script with all of the original actors in mind, so it was a lot of fun to see the roles in different hands. A couple of the characters really benefited from being played by older actors. One in particular — the brilliant Ken Craig — made me wish I'd given his character more to do. The staging brought out a slapstick element that the much larger original space wouldn't have allowed, and the director chose to end the show with a neat (unscripted) sequence soundtracked by "The Man Who Sold the World" (the Bowie version).

So I was happy with the results. A couple of quiet nights aside, I'm told the box office was strong. Reviews were up and down. I've collected them below, posted in the order I became aware of them (which is not necessarily the order they appeared).

I'm well aware that artists never come off well when they try to strike back at their critics, so I decided to wait a while before compiling these. It's uniquely unpleasant to have your work trashed, particularly when it seems like the critic is trying to put on a show of their own by kicking you. But it's only really a problem if your own relationship with the work is shallow or insecure. If you were truly absorbed in creating and living with that play, or album, or film, or whatever, then anything said (good or bad) by anyone other than a trusted friend or editor is going to be purely incidental by comparison.

My friend Molly told me about a writing class she took in London with the theater critic from Time Out. She turned in a review of a production of Antony and Cleopatra that starred Helen Mirren and just-back-from-Hollywood Alan Rickman. Heretical as it may sound to give Alan Rickman a bad review, Molly thought he was pitching his performance to the movie cameras, and she led her review with a Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves zinger. She was quite proud of it. However, the Time Out theater critic told her that it's actually quite easy to write something clever; it's much harder to write something insightful, to reveal something about the thing you're reviewing (good or bad).

For completeness, here's the 1999 review from the Daily Illini, by Timothy Konczyk.


The Penny Dreadful Players continue their prolific fall season with "Monks in Trouble," an original play written and directed by Marc Heiden. In addition to the play, two members of Very Secretary will open the Friday night performance with music and Demoted to Hugs will close both performances, playing a song written for the play in their set. "Monks in Trouble" explores the lives of five monks trapped in a monastery over the winter as pieces of their secluded world begin to disappear. The characters are revealed through monologues interspliced with dramatic action. The leader, Stephen (Rory Leahy), best fits the preconceived notion of a monk: a calm, holy man with a soft voice that speaks in terms of faith and devotion. Michael (Mike Renaud) is his polar opposite: a surly rebel with a filthy mind and mouth. Lorenzo (Hank Sprague) is a disgruntled but level-headed artist searching for answers. Jackson (Tony Cosenza) does not seen to grasp the concept of monastic life but longs for enlightenment and salvation. Percy (Eric Rampson) grew up in a monastery believing he was the Second Coming of Christ. Despite the lack of a rational explanation for the disappearances, the story is told more with a postmodern sensibility than in the surrealist tradition. The disintegration of the monastery serves as an impetus for the characters to reevaluate their lives and motivation as they try to justify and survive their crumbling surroundings. The conversations of the monks, laced with comedy, defy the tradition standards of holiness, but hold a deeper meaning. Through each other, they find some sort of resolution - their journey of exploration and discovery is the journey of the play. In "Monks in Trouble", Heiden has created an environment where logic no longer functions. Stripped away of this stumbling block, the audience, like the characters, must reconsider life and the role of religion not in terms of rationality, but in terms of humanity.

That one was a treat. I later had a chance to read a play Tim had written, and it was quite good.

And on to the 2010 reviews. First up, a user named Breadcrumb from TheatreMania.com.

My husband and I were delighted seeing Marc Heiden's rich comedy Monks in Trouble. The 5 very talented actors; two who stand out ; Dan Cooney and Ken Craig, take their audience on a journey seeking the answer to a soulful mystery. This is perfect entertainment for a weekend; light enough to separate oneself from the work week; with a shadow encroaching.

Second came Keith Griffith from the Chicago Reader. (The director told me that Griffith was a last-minute substitute for another reviewer. What a shame!)

The Three-Stooges-Meet-Kafka concept--bumbling monks get trapped in a monastery that's disappearing piece by piece--may have sounded great over drinks. In the harsh klieg light of reality, though, Marc Heiden's play suggests a bad sketch grown to monstrous one-act proportions. Director Rory Leahy appears to have focused all his attention on a series of monologues the monks deliver--most of the other scenes play like they were put up with nothing more than instructions on when to enter and exit. The American Demigods serve up this brew of churlish humor and laughable theology in conjunction with The Short Stack, a set of three forgettable dramatic sketches.

I can only hope that I never fall so far out of love with the English language as to sign my name beneath a turn of phrase like "the harsh klieg light of reality". I grew up with the old multi-section Reader, though, so I'll admit wishing that we got a better hearing there. C'est la vie. (I'd forgotten this, but I apparently had a dream about a bad Reader review for "Monks" in 2002.)

A ChicagoReader.com user named artiste replied in the comments for Griffith's review:

Were you watching the same show I was? Monks in Trouble has a terrific cast and is a thought provoking, humorous play.

I guess I will be reading your reviews with many grains of salt.

Wasn't me and the director says it wasn't him, so I guess we've got ourselves an internet goon squad.

Next up was Nicholas Ryan Lamb from a website called Steadstyle Chicago.

On with the main event, "Monks in Trouble". Monks, each with their own reason for inhabiting this monastery, and each with their own "less than Monk personalities", have recently been victims to "the void". This unexplainable event is slowly making the world around them disappear. Well, not disappear but there is merely a void where something used to be. Michael and Lorenzo are on a mission to explain these occurrences and try and stop them from continuing. The show is portrayed simplistically but effectively. You won't get caught up with grand sets, costumes, or lighting, but this isn't needed. What the show is focused on is the text. The script is written quite well and precisely by Marc Heiden. Rich with not only fantastic banter but the inclusion of the character reveals are extremely well penned. The acting is quite enjoyable as each actor brings a unique quality to the characters.

Eric Cartier (Percy) finds amazing balance and levels that bring forth a well rounded contribution to his scenes as he tries to figure out if he is the son of God. On the quest of interpreting the happenings are Michael (Jordan Hoisington) and Lorenzo (David Wilhelm). Each one adds wonderful traits that make you laugh and question their existence in the monastery. Dan Cooney (Stephen) heads up the Monk order as, what seems to be, perfect for this place. His quiet and pleasant demeanor lends itself a place with the Monks but at the same time it is less interesting. I find this something to be examined by the playwright. Ken Craig (Jackson) rounds out the cast as the Monk has been driven to this life. He tries taking a vow of silence but fails miserably. The actions and text don't lend a believability to this nature in combination with the rest of his character.

This show is perfect for this venue, as it's quaint and intimate. The space was used well but I found it crowded at times when the whole cast was on stage. This problem came from the lack of levels. It is nice to see original works in the city and this is no exception.

Then came a blog review from Beth Dugan, a short-time co-worker of mine and a longer-time co-worker of the director's.

Monks in Trouble was fun. It was simple, and while I would have splurged for actual costumes and not nylon Halloween monk robes which were clingy in places I don't want to think about monks having, the cast was great. The actor who played the shy, feckless monk was so soulful in his performance, I felt deeply for what he was going through.

I assumed that would be the last review, but one more appeared, a mere eleven days before closing. Brandon Kosters of something called fnewsmagazine.com, fwrote the following freview.

This is the kind of play SAIC students should be going to see, particularly the writing students and the performance artists. Not because it's good, but because it's a testament to what you can do in a small space with few actors, virtually no props, and limited costuming. The show is sort of double header, with The Short Stack (Three short plays written by Reina Hardy) starting the show.

The Short Stack reminds me of something the late comic Mitch Hedberg once said. "You've got to start the show strong and end strong. It can't be like pancakes: exciting at first, but by the end you're fuckin' sick of em."

Enough said.

Playwright Marc Heiden is an alum of UIC, where he wrote the script for Monks in Trouble.

To summarize the plot briefly, a group of Monks flip out when objects in their monastery begin to mysteriously disappear. I will compare the three characters in the photograph below to three of the Seven Dwarves. Stephen (played by Dan Cooney) is the head of the monastery, kind of like Doc. Jackson (played by actor Ken Craig) is the cynical worldly failed-entrepreneur turned monk, kind of like Grumpy. Percy (played by Eric Cartier) is somewhere between Dopey and Jesus Christ. Although humble and kind of bumbling, he might be the son of God.

When you go to a cheap Chinese buffet, you're only disappointed if you expect something other then what the buffet is capable of providing you with: bad Chinese food.

By that token, Monks in Trouble is precisely what you could expect to see in a theater underneath train tracks with a seating capacity of 50.

An alum of UIC? How dare you!

Really the perfect illustration of what the Time Out theatre critic said. The writer is begging you to appreciate how clever he is. Reference to an edgy comedian! Zany reference to a Disney movie! Cutting analogy to a Chinese restaurant! Are you impressed yet? Although that last one does neatly underline the quality of writing one ought to expect from a typo-riddled art school blog that runs theater reviews at the speed of four weeks late — it is, after all, only delivering what it's capable of providing readers with.

If I've missed any reviews, I'll post them here. Otherwise, that's the lot!

I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.

Often discussed:

Antarctica, Beelzetron, Books, Chicago, College, Communism, Food, Internet, Japan, Manute Bol, Monkeys and Apes, North Korea, Oregon Trail, Outer Space, Panda Porn, Politics, RabbiTech, Shakespeare, Sports, Texas.


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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.