“This show represents many things to me. Initially, it was born from a desire to create something a bit more serious, a bit more weighty than my last summer’s show, “Do Not Kill Me, Killer Robots,” while still maintaining the same fun lo-fi, diy feel and aesthetic. While that core mission has persisted, much of the original thoughts I had about this show changed drastically, in ways that have mirrored changes in my own life. What you see is a far more optimistic, more strident, and I hope, more fun show than what I started putting on paper almost a year ago. Mostly, I just hope you have as good a time watching it as I’ve had writing, rehearsing, performing, and touring it. Enjoy!” (by Ben Egerman, from the show program)
Ben Egerman’s dark comedy combines classic character-sketch stand-up, puppetry, narrative fiction (part folktale, part children’s story, part sci-fi), and dumpster-dive-aesthetic visual aids to tell a post-apocalyptic story of war between humans and beasts.
“The beasts are out there,” says the first in a rotation of about a dozen characters—introducing us to a world in which humanity has retreated into a bunker that’s completely cut off from the outside world, and from which the only way in or out is a single door. Outside the door, there are beasts—animals of a nature at once strange and familiar—who claim that they drove the humans into the bunker after humanity nearly wiped them out. Inside, humankind is slowly dying (not enough room or resources), and a few brave souls have gathered the remaining members of their species to decide whether or not, after what seems like millennia, humankind should open the door and venture out into the world.
Egerman’s nonchalant delivery style, sense of timing, and mastery of the ironic understatement have made his smart, topical comedy a Fringe favorite for years. But it appears that hanging around the Bedlam for a while has rubbed off on him—this show was a definite departure from his earlier work. It was slightly darker and more political, though not obviously so—more allegorical than polemical. And the writing was more mature than the earlier work I’ve seen—it relied more on wit and wisdom than on scatology (in fact, the only scatological reference in the whole show was directly related to the plot), but in spite of the weighty subject matter, Egerman never lost his sense of fun.
Certain parts worked better than others. The transitions between characters and between the humans and the beasts were good, but they left a lot of unanswered questions about what was happening on the beasts’ side of things. As far as the puppets went, I liked most of them, but the tiger, which needed two people to operate, did not cover the two men’s heads, and so it looked like it had three heads, which distracted a bit from the performance. And the wolf bit needs some work—the fake German accent didn’t really fit with the story’s internal logic, and his rages against his assistant lasted just a bit longer than the humor did.
There was a lot of great humor in the rest of the show, though, from the barmy archivist to the suit-wearing deal-maker to the self-righteous “beast fighter” who’s never seen a real beast, and I laughed throughout the whole thing. But the political allegory, in my opinion, was what really made this a great Fringe show—especially in light of the mid-Fringe conversation Adam Whisner and I had about political art. What art brings to political discourse that nothing else can provide is an opportunity to examine the deep issues at work, in the individual psyche as well as in society, that underlie a course of events, for good or for ill (or, more often, some of each). People in political campaigns don’t really have the time to debate the Big Philosophical Issues—in my experience, political activists are likely to view such conversations as sidetracking, because they take away from the precious time needed to work toward an implementable goal. But if art is not invested in a particular outcome, then artists can spend all the time they need to explore an issue from different angles.
What issue is at stake in The Beasts? It could be any number of things—although ecological crises seem the most likely candidates (resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, waste management, or all of the above). The one thing that comes through clearly, though, is that if humanity is going to survive the problems we’ve slowly created for ourselves over many generations, then all of us will have to face our fears of the unknown. “We might die out there,” says the guy who first called the meeting to decide whether or not to open the door. “And we might not. But we know for sure that we will die in here.” It is never easy for us to face our own deepest fears—no matter how easy we think it is. But it’s the only thing that will ever offer us the possibility of change—which is the only thing that keeps us alive.
Overall, the show works well—it’s funny, entertaining, and makes you think about important issues without hitting you over the head with them. The few things I found confusing or distracting did not detract from the work as a whole, and it ends on a cautiously optimistic note without caving in to a Hollywood ending.
One point worth noting is that the allegory is a literary form that’s been out of fashion for some time now. Critics typically refer to it as a form of didactic art or literature—despised by 19th-century Romantics and often still associated with stuffy moralists like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein. With modernity came the idea of limitless freedom, which gave us the idea that we could do and be anything we want: rock star, astronaut, President…heck, maybe all three. So in the stories we encounter on the page, stage, or screen, we like to flood ourselves with limitless possibilities of meaning and interpretation, and the allegory is just a bit too nailed-down and stodgy for our modern/postmodern sensibilities. In The Beasts, as with any allegory, there isn’t an awful lot that’s open to interpretation—either humanity opens the door, or it doesn’t. But this allegory is a particularly important one for our time—it reminds us that we do, in fact, have a few natural limits. The earth is finite, and so is our time on it. “Nothing is certain,” says one of the door-opening proponents. We could play it safe today and still die tomorrow. And if we choose the status quo because we fear the unknown, it might work out for a while, but it won’t out in the long run. So as we engage in an ever more frenzied competition over dwindling resources that speeds up the pace of everyday life and causes us to spend an increasing amount of time on activities we don’t even understand, let alone enjoy, we could all use a memento mori from time to time.