Put on by Queen City Flash and written and directed by Trey Tatum and Bridget Leak (Slut Shaming, winner of the 2014 Artist Pick of the Fringe, and The Disappearance of Nicole Jacobs), Of Monster Descent describes itself as a story about “a family on the brink of collapse and the woodland beast that stalks just beyond their fence line.” Set in Southern Alabama between Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, the one-man show has Tatum telling his story, presumably autobiographical, of himself as a 15-year-old boy forced into manhood, confronting a family legacy of bipolar disorder.
Beyond that vagueness it’s hard to describe the actual story. It’s not that there’s a twist so much as a hook — the idea that monsters are real — that’s explored through vivid imagery and tactile wordplay, all brought to life through Tatum’s immersive performance. He’s affable and down to earth, shoeless while wearing only shorts and a T-shirt, but also tortured and raw. He organically switches between accents, his own drifting back and forth into a Southern twang that’s distinct from his abusive father’s and saintly grandfather’s while also bringing to life iconography such as Frankenstein and Johnny Quest with just whistling and vocal percussion sound effects.
What ties the narrative together is the metaphor of the monster, potently tied together with Tatum’s unique interpretation of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s picture book, Where the Wild Things Are. That simple reference is one everyone will get but allows for a re-contextualizing that is immediately understandable and, thus, all the more tragic.
The show is very minimalist, with Tatum framed by a lit backdrop featuring the Gulf Coast setting. It’s cartoonish and sparse, adding to the overall sense of the show as a tall tale. There’s a hint of Southern Gothic, with shades of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Hard truths, dark secrets and self-destructive refusal to accept harsh realities all culminate in a raw explosion of emotion. Tatum and Leak’s refreshing message, however, compared to the nihilism of most of those Gothic predecessors is a sense of empathy and acceptance.
The Cincinnati Fringe Festival runs through June 10. Find showtimes, tickets and more info here.