John Kuntz’s mind is a treasure chest without a filing system. Fortunately, there is a key, and director David R. Gammons has it. As with Kuntz’s “The Salt Girl” and “The Hotel Nepenthe,” Gammons has turned the witty, sinister, sometimes inscrutable jumble of “Necessary Monsters” into a thing of intrigue and dream if not exactly beauty.
I use the word “jumble,” though it might have been “jungle.” It was Gammons’ idea to place the title characters of Kuntz’s theater piece, which is in its world premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company (at the Calderwood Pavilion through Jan. 3), in a cage. There, with the audience strewn on either side of a long, wired confine, the metaphorical monsters strut and stretch their stuff — before taking their seats for a wild airplane ride whose first spot of turbulence sends its passengers flailing as a red sky erupts on television monitors and we listen to an eerie, echoic version of the play’s unlikely theme song, “You Are My Sunshine.” Aptly, Kuntz himself plays the flight attendant, solicitously offering his fellow travelers water, then dropping the glasses on the floor of the cabin.
But thanks to Gammons and a hypnotic sound and video design by Adam Stone, “Necessary Monsters” is not so much a bumpy ride as an anxious, deliberately disorienting one through overlapping genres that include film noir, horror movies, dreamscape, detective story, and children’s television. The show’s inspiration, however, was Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges’ alphabetical dictionary of mythical creatures, “The Book of Imaginary Beasts,” first published in English in 1969. Not that the play’s 20-odd characters, played by eight actors, are literal dragons, centaurs, and nymphs, oh my (though I did spot a harpy and a Cyclops, and there’s a winged kids’-show host called Faye the Fairy). But Borges’ beasties are just one among many elements sifted through the filter — make that sieve — of Kuntz’s pop-culturally-honed imagination.
At a talkback following the opening-afternoon performance, the playwright/performer took a downright Pirandellian stance regarding the meaning of “Necessary Monsters”: Right you are if you think you are. In other words, you can’t be wrong, though you might be confused by this mash-up — compared by director Gammons to nesting Russian dolls — of Freddie Krueger, “Spellbound,” “Prescription: Murder,” and Pee-Wee Herman. Oh yes, the dramatis personae also include water-treading mermen and a stuffed monkey.
The trick is: The play’s not linear but it definitely has a structure, its tenuously interconnected stories working their way toward an interlude in which seven actors lie down and a disheveled but haughty corpse (loosely inspired by 18th-century Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg’s reports from heaven and hell) comes to life to hobble in gold high heels over their bones to a charity function where, when not whipping the wait staff to attention, she tells a disconcerting tale of being, quite possibly, touched by an angel. When this arguable society monster returns to the world of eternal slumber, the other characters rise to inch their ways back into and out of stories inspired by a blind date, a kiddie killer, a police procedural, a movie in the making, several rounds of psychotherapy and attempted domestic violence, and a novel/film/drama called “Necessary Monsters.” And the characters aren’t just conjoined by their tangential stories; in Gammons’ hands they are like dancers in a roundelay, bound together by ribbons of rotary-phone wire and vivid yellow crime tape.
The camera (sometimes built into a cell phone) is also a character in “Necessary Monsters,” setting up questions about what’s real and what’s merely being acted by actors playing actors. Fortunately, the production boasts a superb roster of performers, most of them capable of nicely calibrated overacting when genre parody, or the score, calls for it. Sound designer Stone’s use of music is quite effective in this regard: dreamy piano riffs set or counter the mood, tense snippets from the classical songbook shadow the murderer (who always carries his cleaver), Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby” serves as incongruous accompaniment to a cussing fairy’s savage tirade against an interloper in a television studio, and a final, post-cataclysmic recurrence of “You Are My Sunshine” becomes a sort of dirge.
Of course, Kuntz has conjured up a few arias of his own. Foremost is the arrogant yet somehow poignant comic monologue delivered by that bejeweled and imperious representative of the undead, Greer. Played by Thomas Derrah in glittering, growly drag, with what might be called drop-dead timing, Greer has lost a son (everyone in the play has lost something) but lays claim, however appearances might indicate the contrary, to a heart. She just feels that the world, from its servant class to its indistinguishable needy, should do better.
A commanding Georgia Lyman, too, gets to wrap her mouth around a food-fueled Kuntzian ode to excess in which, perched on a psychiatrist’s couch, she details an unquenchable hunger that escalates from burgers and fries to a restaurant orgy in which even the waiters get eaten. In less showy roles, a tightly wound McCaela Donovan, intensely interior Stacy Fischer, piercingly expressive Evelyn Howe, quirkily childlike Greg Maraio, and haunted Michael Underhill are also impressive. Kuntz, of course, impersonating not only the steward but also a murderous shrink and an underwater seducer, proves the most necessary monster of all. If he didn’t exist, Borges would have to invent him.