A Contemporary Theatre, 292-7676. $15 ($10 for anyone under 25).
Through Feb 11.

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH'S show Monster made me do something I have never done in my life: I sympathized with a rapist. This occurred near the end of her one-woman performance piece when she was playing this character named Wilfred, a poor, inarticulate young guy who lives in Harlem. He gets the idea that his neighbor, Theresa, is his girlfriend and that she wants to have sex with him. When he finds Theresa's bedroom door open, he assumes she is inviting him in to have sex. She isn't, of course, and when she puts up a struggle, Wilfred rapes her.

When this scene got going, I started to feel sick at my stomach. I am the kind of person who has to close my eyes or fast-forward through violence, especially sexual violence, in movies. And although I'm generally a good lefty, I think the simplest thing to do about the rape epidemic is just to shoot the bastards. So when, during this scene in Monster, I realized I was feeling sympathy not only for Theresa but also for Wilfred, Jesus, did that throw me for a loop. But I was beginning to see Wilfred as this hopelessly loser kid who was taking out his fear and hatred and resentment about his powerlessness in the world on the only person he knew who was worse off than him: a girl.

This uncomfortable complexity of character is part of what makes Orlandersmith's work so powerful. Monster, which was first performed in l996, tells the story of how Theresa, a smart, bookish l5-year-old black girl, is able to fight her way out the miserable life into which she was born. Her family and neighbors make fun of her because she listens to rock and roll and they think she is trying to "act white." American culture's prescriptions about what it is to "act black" or "act white" rumble beneath this play as conscious and unconscious motivations for these characters.

Theresa's mother, Beula, is a drunk but Theresa's grandmother, Sophia, encourages the girl. These three are a pretty standard constellation of characters. In most plays, you're supposed to sympathize with Theresa, feel affection for the crusty old grandma, and regard the drunk parent as a minor character whose function in the drama is to be an obstacle the hero overcomes. Orlandersmith upsets these expectations in disturbing ways which I won't ruin for you by telling you. (Go see the show.)

Orlandersmith really messes up your sense of who is a victim and who is an oppressor. Just when you think you've got someone pegged, you learn something about them that makes them look very different. The fact that these pairs of people--the boy who rapes the girl and the girl who is raped, the mother who ignores her daughter and the daughter who abandons her mother--are portrayed by a single actor underscores the idea that each of us is a victim and, as the title suggests, a monster.

As an actor, Orlandersmith makes you do a double-take: Is that really the same person playing all these parts? Theresa has the energetic, physical self-consciousness of a teenager just beginning to discover a world beyond her home. Her face is quick and mobile; there's a swagger in her walk. When Orlandersmith changes into grandmother Sophia, though, her face falls and you can practically hear her bones creak. As Herman, an old Jew who's lived in Theresa's building since he was released from Dachau, she loses about six inches in height and becomes thick and stocky. As Wilfred, she's a restless, lanky boy, all elbows and hormones, who has a hard time sitting still. She can also be, both physically and verbally, extremely funny.

This show isn't perfect. On opening night, Orlandersmith dropped several lines, though I'm guessing she will have sufficiently re-memorized the five-year-old text by the time you read this review. There are also some heavy-handed lines: Herman's sudden, spaced-out memory of what he had to eat at Dachau sounds forced, and Theresa's address to Marsha, a dead friend, is overlong. But these are minor quibbles. Monster makes us at look at the most complicated, difficult parts of ourselves. This play may make you feel uncomfortable, but you'll learn something important about the extremes of being human.

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