Reviewed by Jara Jones
It’s a sign of our uneasy and determined times that the themes expressed in Red Emma and the Mad Monk feel dated, even though the experimental full length one act musical was first performed in 2017. By now, any audience member has been inundated with the idea that the myth and subterfuge language can create (especially language expressed via social media and Wikipedia) depreciates humanity. It lionizes others while allowing corruption to take hold within our government. We’ve been told time and again, offered multitudes of evidence of greed and subversion by foreign countries, and there’s still people who either refuse to believe it or focus squarely on the locus of their self-interest.
The premise: A twelve-year old girl, Addison (Maybe Burke, a non-binary actor doing the best they can with the halting, limp text) has a link to two legendary people. The enigmatic mystic Grigori Rasputin (Drita Kabashi, an indomitable presence with the ability to make simple, heartfelt choices) and the anarchist activist Emma Goldman (Imani Pearl Williams, playing the role with unbridled, wide-eyed enthusiasm). During the production, their lives are highlighted in counterpoint to Addison’s own desires to stoke political change. The two figures serve as a sort of devil and angel counterbalance for the young girl; in the play’s conclusion, however, all hope is dashed through further obfuscation of history and truth.
The show is a cluster of half-premises and dissonant styles, hammered again and again to fill the hour and forty-minute running time. There’s camp abound with the casting of a woman as Rasputin, endowing her full of pop culture references instead of authentic living. Emma Goldman comes off as an optimistic starry-eyed, one-dimensional character; we end up learning so much more about the men in her life (such as Sasha Berkman – played with a rote, inorganic anger by Fernando Gonzalez; the work he does here vs his first role as Louis Lingg is indistinguishable in affect and tone) than her own suffering and struggles to uproot the political sphere. The music is largely forgettable, except for the parts which substitute anarchistic goals for the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner”. It’s around the third time the musical shoves them into your ears that I felt such anger and heaviness.
There’s so much potential in any one of the half-hearted stories within Red Emma and the Mad Monk. The fault lies entirely in the choices made by the playwright and director. A play based on teenagers following blind acceptance to what version of truth ekes out from Twitter. An unflinching look at Emma Goldman, her losses, her struggles and disillusionment after being deported back to Russia. A narrative focused on Rasputin himself, drafting multiple possibilities to what true individual he may have been. Or, using the last minute character introduction of shadowy political figure and confidante of Vladmir Putin , Vladislav Surkov (played with a steely, charming danger by Jonathan Randell Silver) as a lens by which to further understand propaganda and political theatre in modern Russia. Following just one in earnest, compassionate detail would make for a far better show than Emma and the Mad Monk. While there’s gorgeous scenic and audio/visual design (thanks to Diggle, John Salutz, and Luther Frank), I left feeling like I’d swallowed a fistful of cotton candy – I’d done so much work to get it down, and in the end, it felt empty, saccharine, and disposable.
Red Emma and the Mad Monk is produced by Emma Orme and the The Tank and runs until September 1st at The Tank (312 W 36th. St. First Floor)