|It’s been a fifteen-year journey for playwright Henry Murray—a journey that began while dining in a restaurant with a couple of his good friends—who were unaware at the time they would inspire a trio of very unusual characters: a monkey, a cat and a rat. In the interest of protecting their identities, Murray not only changed their names but their species as well in his bawdy love story that began as a playwriting exercise in a U.C.L.A. class taught by Murray Mednick, (accomplished playwright and founder of the Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop/Festival). With this weekend’s opening of “Monkey Adored” at the acclaimed Rogue Machine, Murray opens up about the writing process and the path that would wind its way to a fully staged production.|
Having already mounted the critically successful “Treefall” with the Rogue Machine in 2009, Murray’s professional relationship with artistic director, John Perrin Flynn is still going strong. While some say fences make good neighbors, plays seem to have brought these two Venice residents together. After working on a TV show in Florida, Flynn returned in time to sit in on a reading of “Treefall” and the two shopped it around to other theaters, but no one was biting.
Murray explains, “That was one of his reasons for starting Rogue Machine—to do riskier works that no one else wanted to take on. Now of course, everybody is doing new work.”
When asked if he was the reason for the Rogue Machine’s formation, Murray muses, “I think I’m one of them. He [Flynn] knows other writers, a coterie of directors and designers he wanted to work with but “Treefall” was definitely one of the things he wanted to accomplish when he started the theater.”
That seed of an idea would go on to sprout deep roots in a short span of time, with Rogue Machine stretching its vision of original new works to include rarely produced plays and garner the serious attention from the theater community. Murray proves that all it takes is persistence.
Utilizing multimedia such as projections and puppets, Murray ventures into experimental territory with his new play that has already received national attention with a reading at the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival and a weeklong workshop at DC’s The Inkwell. But the idea of sharing his story with designers and other artists excites him. “One of the challenges is that you never know exactly how a designer is going to respond to the words you put on the page that indicate something is happening. It’s amazing to see how you write a simple sentence on the page and it becomes like a child’s toy. To see some of these things come to life. They take an idea and run with it. That part is remarkable, startling and very gratifying.”
Unlike some writers that loathe editing their works, Murray is the kind of playwright who enjoys rolling up his sleeves and getting messy with it. He is a consistent presence in rehearsals and stresses the need for further development and support from theaters in the constantly evolving stages. “I think the development aspects of it are wonderful and exploratory. You cut a scene but something else grows in its place. When you finally get into the production rehearsals, that’s when it changes the most. You really hone it down to what’s essential.”
What’s essential for Murray is trust—whether it’s in a story that reveals itself visually to him or the execution of that vision with professionals like the Rogue Machine he holds in high esteem. “I trust him [John Perrin Flynn]. I think he’s a wonderful storyteller and a great artist in his own right. He covers a lot of ground. He has his finger on every aspect of the production. I’m really grateful to him.”
As to the process, Murray admits his ideas can come from anywhere and at any time: “I’ve had plays start through a fugue state when you’re about to fall asleep. I saw a young boy lying on the cabin floor in the sunlight holding a naked Barbie doll. That in itself doesn’t sound like much, but the visual was emotionally charged for me. It immediately woke up and I started writing. My play “Three Views of the Same Object” which opens in Illinois this April started because I stopped to help an old woman who had fallen in front of her mailbox. They can start in any way. And the process of asking questions. What are the possibilities and what haven’t I thought about? What happens to the characters? It’s a process of asking questions. It’s a bit of a collage-technique. In the end, it all has to meld into one piece.”
So why, one might ask, a monkey, a cat and a rat? Murray explains, “The play is an allegory. While people have certain characteristics of animals, they are complex human beings. They have complex lives; they fall in love, cross species, cross genders. It’s an interesting situation.”
As to whether it’s a farce or something darker, Murray agrees it is both—a trademark of his style. “It starts out in a happy-go-lucky way. The monkey is actually a Bonobo ape. These apes are very sexual. All conflict is resolved sexually—fondling and touching. Life is sexualized. They are extremely passive. Given that the title character is a Bonobo ape, there’s a sort of freewheeling sexuality that starts the play before darker events emerge. Everyone is very friendly with everyone else.”
If you’re wondering how a rat and a cat fit in, I won’t spoil it here suffice it to say that Murray pits his characters in ordinary surroundings, a café, where the opening scene has much of the same dialogue as when he listened to his friends fifteen years ago for a class assignment. It’s been a long journey for Murray who reiterates his appreciation to the Rogue Machine and everyone along the way.
“A play like “Monkey Adored” had had many opportunities over the years and now here it is, finally getting its production. You have to be grateful for every step.”
There have been a lot of steps along the way, earning Murray several distinguishing awards such as the LADCC award for “Treefall,” and the prestigious Woodman/Newman award for his play “Three Views of the Same Object,” and recently announced as a Heideman Award finalist at Actor Theatre of Louisville for his recent play “Down For The Count.”
As to what kind of stories we can expect from Murray in the future, he laughs and says, “I tend to write stories that change tone. My stories start out in a comic vein, lively, and then you see complications continue to occur until it gets into a darker thread. I’m not the kind of writer that sits down and outlines ‘how can I get the audience hooked.’ It’s something that’s ingrained in my storytelling process. I’m an experimenter. I’m always looking for a way to break the mold.”
Runs through Nov 20
Fri & Sat at 8pm
Sundays at 3pm
5041 W. Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90019
--M.R. Hunter (eyespylareview[at]gmail.com)
Photos courtesy of the production
For more on theatre, or to read our latest reviews visit our ON STAGE IN LA page. To find local listings of theatres in your area please see our THEATRE or general ENTERTAINMENT page.
Want to know what other Theatre Critics are saying? Check out Bitter Lemons to see if others have reviewed this production.