The Watching of THE MAKING OF KING KONG

Photo by Maria Baranova

Lisa Clair’s new play The Making of King Kong, playing at Target Margin’s THE DOXSEE through December 15th, begins informally in the outer lobby, amid cut out displays and faux memorabilia. The front-of-house person, prior to allowing the audience members gain access to the seating area, reads off a semi-lengthy list of potential triggers contained within the show (guns, violence, etc) before ending with “yoga.”

This sets the tone for the evening rather tidily, as what follows is an exaggerated period documentary set against contemporary incongruities and anachronisms, an unruly container for serious matters amid jokes – or maybe it’s the other way around? It’s sometimes hard to spot Clair’s priorities, but her overall intent to interrogate the material and cultural surroundings of the King King origin story remains on target throughout.

While a huge puppet plays the titular monkey nine miles away in Manhattan on Broadway (it would take you three hours to walk from one venue to the other, suggesting a potential pilgrimage wherein one took in a matinee performance of Kong at 42nd street and then hiked to Sunset Park to catch Clair’s much-more-gritty nightcap), this King Kong is less interested in the monkey as a physical (visible) monster. Instead, The Making of King Kong sets out to unpack the monstrosity of our current cultural moment via the monkey, simultaneously evoking a 1930s acting style (transatlantic accents abound) while complicating itself with very-much-now identity politic-infused dialogue. The ape himself is effectively suggested by sound effects and clever stagings (directed by Eugene Ma) that place him behind the audience – we’re often watching someone watch Kong, as opposed to gawking ourselves. At one point, we even watch Fay Wray (strongly portrayed by Molly Pope), the Hollywood starlet who is ultimately kidnapped by Kong, stimulate herself to climax while watching the monkey.

It’s not the kind of play that one can tidily hang a big-banner question over, but it’s worth asking nonetheless: Just what are we all looking at? On the one hand, the play’s film director Marian C. Cooper (an enjoyable despicable Ean Sheehy) claims it’s on us, not him. “A monkey is a monkey is a monkey!” he proclaims, adding “YOU said a monkey was ‘symbolic’ – not me. I never said that. What’s wrong with you?” On the other hand, once Cooper and his sad-sack cinematographer Ernest B. Shoedsack (an effectively understated Hanlon Smith-Dorsey) find themselves on a remote tropical island in search of the beast and their leading lady, they encounter three of what the script describes as “White Yoga Women” who have taken over the island for a women’s retreat. The script also dictates that these women be played by “post white women – with vaginas.” The space that opens up between what the women (performed with applumb by Youree Choi, Claire Fort, and Sauda Aziza Jackson) represent within the play versus how we seem them is not clearly resolved, but the dramatic accomplishment – of making the audience see/think beyond the comfort of binaries –  is consistently intriguing if not totally coherent.

Other devices delight and occasionally confound. The choreography (movement consultancy by Sam Pinkleton) and songs of the White Yoga Women are beguilingly strange, profane, and sometimes stretch the play’s canvas close to a tearing point. The heavy use of an on-stage narrator, described by the script as a contemporary black male (played by Kevin R. Free, who more than rises to the occasion), seems innocuous enough at first, but as the play proceeds he becomes more and more of an observer, until finally he leaves the stage all together, only to return for an end-of-show extraneous epilogue that felt like the production’s only significant miscalculation despite its best intentions. In an unruly play that doesn’t resolve in the best of ways, it’s a jarring way to conclude.

It’s clear that Clair is wrestling with something very big with The Making of King Kong, and it’s not just a monkey. The play itself embodies the struggle of making sense of history, American myth, past and present gender dynamics – well, anything – through our contemporary political lens, and Clair’s uniquely off-kilter comic aesthetic makes the medicine go down pretty smooth for the most part, except for the artistically intentional points at which we can’t help but choke.

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