Directed and co-adapted by Sally Cookson, “A Monster Calls” is based on the 2011 book of the same name from Patrick Ness and tells the story of 13-year-old Conor (Anthony Aje) and his terminally ill mother (Bridgette Amofah). As his mother gets sicker, Conor is forced to deal with his overbearing grandmother (Anita Reynolds), school bullies, losing his best friend Lily (Eleanor Kane), and his father (Tom Lorcan) moving to America.
Then one night, Conor is visited by the monster that inhabits the old yew tree in his yard. While Conor desperately tries to prove to everyone he can hold it together, the monster is determined to do otherwise and serves as a vehicle for Conor’s emotional journey and progression. Each night at exactly 12:07, Conor is visited by this monster as it comes walking to recount fables from when it walked before. And when the monster’s stories are done, Conor is forced to tell his own tale.
Aje’s heartbreaking performance as the tortured Conor is one that won’t soon be forgotten. As Conor must learn to cope with love, loss, healing, and grief, Aje brings a vulnerable anger to the stage. Conor’s complicated relationship with his mother is clear in his scenes with Amofah, whose graceful and protective performance will leave you in tears.
Paul Sockett takes on the role of Monster in this performance, although the character is usually played by Keith Gilmore. As Sockett boldly tells his tales suspended above the stage, he radiates authoritative energy with a visceral and raw performance.
In such a visual production, staging and set design is key. Thankfully, set designer Michael Vale and the rest of the production team tackle this with ease. For the most part, the staging is relatively simple, with ensemble cast members flanking the stage and some well timed chair-ography. But it is the creation of the old yew tree that brings Cookson’s production to life. With nothing but thick ropes hanging from the ceiling, ensemble members manipulate the ropes to form the thick branches and gnarled trunk of the tree with eerie, dance-like movements as Sockett swings from branch to branch, looking down at Conor below.
Greg Bernstein is the other notable standout. In addition to serving as an ensemble member, he swaggers around the stage with unwarranted cruelty as school bully Harry.
Sprinkled into this otherwise intense production are a few clever one liners and humorous tidbits, most often from Conor. This lightness serves as a harsh reminder that while Conor is forced to face heavy subject matters like love, loss, and grief, he is in fact still just a child.
“A Monster Calls” runs at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC through June 12, 2022 and is approximately two hours and thirty minutes with a twenty minute intermission. Tickets can be purchased here.
Recommended for ages 10 and up. Please be advised this production makes use of smoke and strobe light effects.
All photo credit to Manuel Harlan.