Monster at Steppenwolf for Young Adults Probes Perception and Identity

Daniel Kyri and Alana Arenas star in "Monster," a Walter Dean Myers novel adapted by Aaron Carter and directed by Hallie Gordon at Steppenwolf. (Michael Brosilow photo) Daniel Kyri and Alana Arenas star in Monster.  Photo by Michael Brosilow. The Steppenwolf for Young Adults series is known for its thematically dynamic productions centered around teenagers and the real issues facing Chicago, and our nation’s, young adults. From productions like This Is Modern Art, which dealt with graffiti, vandalism and its artistic implications, to The Compass, examining civil disobedience and technology’s role in our decision-making and civil disobedience. Now playing is Monster, adapted by Aaron Carter from the acclaimed young adult novel by Walter Dean Myers, a compelling examination of society’s role in a young, African-American teen’s self-concept as he stands on trial for a crime he was minimally involved in. The action of Monster centers around the death of a drugstore owner during a robbery in a lower-class, New York City neighborhood. Steve Harmon (Daniel Kyri), an African-American teenager, may have served as a lookout for the robbery’s perpetrators, and as a result is on trial for felony murder. An aspiring filmmaker with big dreams, Steve is convinced that he’s a good kid, despite the prosecution’s claims that his behavior was monstrous. Narrated as the action of a screenplay by Kyri, audiences are thrown into the action of Monster cinematically. Film jargon like “smash cut,” “fade,” and “dissolve” pepper the story’s transitions, as we split our focus between the courtroom, prison and flashbacks to Steve’s actions leading up to and surrounding the robbery. While the narrative shifts settings frequently, the prison-like unit set by Joanna Iwanicka remains largely unchanged throughout the proceedings, save for large sheets of paper--the storyboards of Steve’s screenplay-in-progress--which are affixed to an unfriendly, grey wall centerstage. Director Hallie Gordon’s decision to represent Steve’s imagined film through drawings instead of projections, though counterintuitive, works well, ultimately offering more insight into Steve’s perspective surrounding the events. As Steve, Kyri does a nice job of balancing a youthful narratorial charisma with the dignity of a young boy who doesn’t quite understand the full implications of a mistake he isn’t sure whether or not he should regret. The rest of the eight-person ensemble, which includes Kenn E. Head as Steve’s father and Alana Arenas as his mother, does double-duty shifting between key players in Steve’s story and keeps the story moving at a brisk pace. While the narrative is primarily concerned with Steve’s sense of identity and the struggles he faces as a young, African-American boy, audiences see multiple sides to each figure in his story, whether they’re another suspect on trial, King (Namir Smallwood), or Cheryl Graeff as his defense attorney, O’Brien. Gordon’s direction gets moving and believable performances from each actor, who, despite the prosecution’s attempts to paint as two-dimensional are rendered with complexity. Ably performed by an impressive cast, Monster is a moving courtroom drama unafraid of grey areas and hard questions. Whether received by teenaged audiences or adults, it is sure to call into question how society’s perceptions and our own actions intersect to make up our identity. Public performances of Monster continue next Friday and Saturday, March 3-4, at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted.  Student tickets are available for $15 with valid student ID. Group tickets (10 or more) to public performances are available by emailing or by calling 312-932-2422. For additional information, visit Performances reserved for school groups are at 10am Tuesday-Thrusday.  For tickets and info, contact Molly Layton, group sales coordinator, at 312-932-2422.
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Brent Eickhoff

Brent Eickhoff is a Chicago-based director, writer, and educator. Brent has worked with A Red Orchid Theatre, Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., The Arc Theatre, The Public House Theatre, Something Marvelous, Whiskey Radio Hour, and The Burrowers. He is the Educational Coordinator for Silk Road Rising, and is a founder and co-artistic director of Blue Goose Theatre Ensemble. While Brent has worked with a variety of Chicago theatre artists, he doesn't let that get in the way of writing unbiased reviews of any production he covers.