Review: ‘From the Mouths of Monsters’ at The Kennedy Center

From the Mouths of Monsters, a world premiere Kennedy Center commission by award-winning playwright Idris Goodwin, directed by Dougie Irvine, is a gripping, intense glimpse into the mind of 15-year-old girl struggling to find her voice—and by extension herself—amid all the forces and circumstances trying to keep her from becoming who she is meant to be. Aimed at teens (the recommended age is 12 and up, although kids as young as 10 would probably enjoy it) this story is sure to resonate with this age group and will remind us older folks of the stress teens are under to both fit in and stand out in today’s high-pressure world.

Shannon Dorsey and Tia Shearer. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

Michelle, the 15-year-old protagonist, is a self-described “quiet girl”—one of the often nameless and faceless teens who aren’t popular or sporty or dramatic and tend to fade into the background in our celebrity-fueled culture. She is a girl with so much to say but no outlet to share her feelings. A young woman who is too shy and timid to stand up in front of her classmates and speak about herself; a wannabe poet who cannot fathom having the confidence to stand up in front of the crowd at the poetry slam. Portrayed in a powerhouse performance by Shannon Dorsey, Michelle’s journey from scared girl to powerful young woman is the focus of this story, and Dorsey is incredibly qualified to take the audience on this journey with her. From the very first moments of this play until the satisfying ending, you can tell you are in the hands of an accomplished and talented actress capable of playing a role that requires both emotional intensity and depth of character.

All the remaining characters in this story (and there are quite a few) are portrayed by Tia Shearer who is outstanding in her ability to switch seamlessly from character to character. Some of the characters are stronger than others (Shearer’s portrayal of Michelle’s brother, Clarence, was so real that I literally forgot there wasn’t a teenage boy on the stage) but all add new voices to the story, from the psychiatrist Michelle sees to the older poet who inspires her to her father. Ironically, the one character I found a bit unbelievable was Michelle’s best friend, Penelope. The interaction between Michelle and Penelope felt a bit forced and didn’t capture truly intense bonds of friendship girls experience at this age. Aspiring actors should see this play just to see Ms. Dorsey and Ms. Shearer performances as they are remarkable in their own right.

Underlying this play is the culture of slam poetry, defined as “a type of poetry expressing a person’s personal story and/or struggle, usually in an intensely emotional style” and playwright Idris Goodwin has imbued From the Mouths of Monsters with the flavor of the slam culture.  Goodwin’s lyrical language adds at least a hint of poetry to everything the characters say and makes this play easy to listen to and digest. There are some supernatural elements to this story that may or may not resonate with theatergoers and the playbill states that this story is loosely based on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” novel, although I will confess that if I hadn’t been told this, I wouldn’t have made the connection myself.

The set of From the Mouths of Monsters, designed by Luciana Stecconi, is industrial and urban, filled with the types of recording equipment that teens have loved throughout the ages, from an old Victrola record player to a reel to reel tape machine to various types of microphones, such as those used for radio interviews, those used for rap battles, and those used in poetry slams.  C.C. Gould’s lighting design and Christopher Baine’s sound design are integral to the success of this play. Sound is played with in many ways here, mirroring how slam poets play with sound when creating their poetry. The microphones, for example, are used to amplify the voices of the characters creating a “monster” effect as in the play’s title. Lighting is used to make shadows that enhance the Michelle as she grows stronger and more confident and to cut her down to size when she is more vulnerable.

There are many references within this play to the power of words to harm or elevate, a subject matter that is quite topical today. At one point Michelle silences herself saying (I am paraphrasing here), “I have to be quiet now until I learn that my words have consequences.” This seemed particularly apropos for our Twitter-happy society where kids (and adults too) use words as weapons. If you have a teenager who is struggling to find his or her voice, or you just want to experience a poetry-filled new play about self-discovery, try From the Mouths of Monsters; it might just be the outlet you need to discover the power that lives inside of you.

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.

From the Mouths of Monsters plays through March 12, 2017, at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater—2700 F St NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.



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