Chicago Theatre Review
The Space Between Fantasy and Reality
Moon Man Walk – Definition Theatre Company
“My mom told me I didn’t touch the ground until I was five,” says Monarch, the protagonist of James Ijames’ Moon Man Walk, presented by the Definition Theatre Company at Victory Gardens Theatre. Ijames’ Chicago premier follows Monarch, a young man struggling to come to terms with his identity as he journeys home to Philadelphia after the news of his mother’s death. While planning her funeral, Monarch finds love, and more importantly, discovers hidden truths about his boyhood, and that the truth may lie somewhere in between reality and fantasy.
While Mr. Ijames’ play deals with important themes that can connect on some level with diverse audiences, such as childhood, loss, love, and the excruciatingly difficult task of finding oneself, it merely scratches the surface, failing to delve deeper into topics which require nuance. As Monarch boards the plane home, he encounters Patrushka, a whimsical woman who pushes him to dig deeper into his past, forcing him to search for his father, Kesi, who left before Monarch was born and was subsequently imprisoned. Instead of telling him the truth, Monarch’s mother told him his father was stuck on the Moon. Thus, Monarch spends the entire play stuck-stuck between his love for Patrushka and the loss of his mother, between the facts of adulthood and childhood fantasies, between the comfort of innocence and the draw of reality. This is nicely manifested in a physical sense, during multiple flashbacks in which Monarch, now a grown man, pretends to be a little boy once again, listening to stories from his mother, Esther, about space-how it is “like a big black ocean between here and there.”
This ensemble of four, which includes Debo Balogun as Monarch, Chanell Bell as Petrushka, Shadana Patterson as Esther and various small characters, and Michael Anthony Rawlins as Kesi and others, works hard to bring these contradictions and tensions that Ijames provides to life. However, they often fail to do so. While Balogun is endearing as Monarch, he has trouble getting his bearings and sense of strength in the more emotionally fraught moments of the play. Bell, too, struggles with this. While her charm and whit are unquestionable, it distracts from her ability to believably play a woman who is supposed to push Monarch to find himself. Patterson and Rawlins have their moments, including a heartfelt scene between the two of them shortly after Monarch’s birth. However, they too struggle to find the essence of their characters in this play, plagued by indecision.
The beautiful set by Eleanor Kahn and lighting by Slick Jorgenson add another layer to this piece. The set consists of a round platform surrounded by big steps that spiral upwards, seemingly going up to space, and the lighting is characterized by blue hues, adding to Monarch’s altered sense of reality. While the set and lights are intriguing, they invite clunky transitions and staging (by director Tyla Abercumbie), sometimes making it unclear that the characters are inhabiting a different space.
That being said, the mission of Definition Theatre Company is an important one. Founded in five years ago by a group of six alumnae of the Undivert of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, it strives to “artistically reflect the myriad of modern America to inspire and engage the communities it represents through contemporary and classical theatrical works.” Supporting new work and presenting stories relevant to its audiences is crucial, especially in these politically fraught times. However, Moon Man Walk struggles to find its voice, just like Monarch, who lives somewhere between the Moon and the Earth, between truth and fantasy.
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Reviewed by Nico Miller