by Christine Malcom

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 21, 2017


For the second production of its 2016-2017 Steppenwolf for Young Adults season, the company collaborates with Storycatchers Theatre to present the world premiere adaptation of Walter Dean Myers' acclaimed young adult novel, "Monster." This intelligently staged, well-paced adaptation by Aaron Carter, directed by Hallie Gordon, is accessible enough to keep its primary audience in mind without at all softening or simplifying the gritty, complex story.

Myers presents the novel itself as a screenplay in progress, penned by sixteen-year-old aspiring filmmaker, Steve Harmon, as he stands trial for felony murder. Although the nonlinear narrative might have been a challenge to adaptation for the stage, here, Carter and Gordon effectively turn the ability to freeze and rewind -- to do another take of pivotal moments -- into rare moments of rest for a character who is only just realizing the bleak and dangerous conditions of his own life as a young man of color.

Joanna Iwanicka's scenic design is attractive and well thought out, both in practical and thematic terms. The main part of the stage, backed by gray cinderblock, is also framed by two stark, gray support posts that imply both a framed shot and the thresholds Steve cannot cross, literally and metaphorically, in the course of his incarceration.

This theme is underscored by minute attention to detail: The chairs accommodating the other seven actors in the cast are plain black with open backs that also read as empty frames. The crates from which they retrieve their costume pieces as they shift between roles also mirror the themes of boundedness and confinement.

In the last moments of the play, Iwanicka literally breaks the frame, splitting the expanse of gray in two, pushing the wall of Steve's room at home to the fore, allowing the audience a feeling of tentative relief as he assembles a collage of shots bursting with color.

Samantha Jones' costume design follows Iwanicka's lead. Most of the cast are dressed in neutral-toned base layers. The only pops of color are the neckties worn by Steve and his co-defendant, James King, and the clash of prison orange. With all the actors other than Steve playing multiple roles, Jones' design facilitates frequent, rapid transitions without disrupting the play's flow.

J. R. Lederle's lighting design wisely keeps things simple regarding color palate, which lets the text and the actors convey the drama, rather than heavy-handedly over-signaling flashbacks and more dramatic moments. The same is largely true of Christopher Kriz's sound design, though it does employ a sound cue that veers too close to the iconic "Law & Order" percussion.

Daniel Kyri is outstanding as Steve. In the best possible way, he portrays Steve as both an absolutely typical teenager and the individual he badly wants to be depicted. His interactions with his younger brother and parents ring true in the way they swing from callous and ungrateful to desperately seeking connection. His bewildered frustration with the justice system reads as heartbreaking, misplaced faith and a full-voiced demand for what he and all too many young men just like him deserve under the law.

The use of the "multi-purpose" cast is an interesting, challenging device on the part of Aaron Carter. It demonstrates a refreshing confidence in a teen/young-adult audience to follow the threads, and it purposefully plays with the theme of self-identity and the identity we are ascribed by other individuals and by society at large.

Within this part of the cast, Tevion Devin Lanier and Kenn E. Head are particular standouts. In playing both Steve's innocent, playful younger brother and Omar, a gang member, younger than Steve, whose culpability in the murder is more obvious, Lanier inhabits two original characters, but fully allows them to echo one another, underscoring the terrifyingly huge role played by chance and circumstance in these boys' fates.

Head's performances productively explore the intersection of class and race in the play. As Steve's father, he assumes that his own privilege has so thoroughly buffered his sons from the experience of being Black in the U.S. that he cannot comprehend Steve's involvement with "people like that."

In his performances as other, more hardened players in Steve's experience with the initial crime and incarceration during the trial, Head allows the stereotype that Steve, as narrator, imposes on to these characters to bleed through, but he affords each man the dignity of individuality and a unique story.

Namir Smallwood draws duty as the less benign male characters Steve encounters, but he, too, avoids lapsing into a stereotype. In James King, in particular, we see Steve grow older, Steve with a less happy outcome, Steve without the benefit of a "good family." Likewise, Chris Rickett's portrayal of Steve's supportive film teacher, as well as more menacing white men in his story, appropriately cultivates a sense of unrelenting unease.

In many ways, the play's three women have performances that are more deeply and explicitly intertwined than their male counterparts. Alana Arenas has the challenging task of playing both Steve's mother, in all her unwavering belief and unconditional love, as well as the prosecutor in the case.

Cheryl Graeff's main role as Steve's defense attorney calls on Graeff to walk a line between dogged, practical support for Steve and her own "agnostic" position on his innocence. Her refusal to act as a mother figure, even at the points when Steve clearly craves that, play in an interesting way against Arenas' choices.

As both judge and various witnesses for the prosecution, Ginneh Thomas ably conveys the sense, all too realistic to a teenager like Steve, that nearly every adult in his life might be an ally one minute and an enemy the next.

"Monster" runs through March 4 at Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. For tickets or information, call 312-335-1650 or visit

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.