A Monster Calls is deliberately more moving than scary
A Monster Calls, a fantasy drama about a boy and his (not so) friendly neighborhood yew-tree monster, follows a well-trod path of adolescent anguish. Yet it manages to feel resonant and worthwhile, thanks in no small measure to a healthy dose of magic realism provided by director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter/novelist Patrick Ness.
Conor is a quiet, lonely boy growing up in small-town England. An artist at heart, he has an additional burden: his mother is dying. With an emotionally distant grandmother and a geographically distant father, Conor has no one with whom to share his sorrow. Plagued by violent, recurring nightmares about the imminent loss of his mom, he somehow conjures up a monster from a craggy old yew tree in the churchyard outside his window. The monster, through a series of nightly visits—always at 12:07—and the seemingly tangential stories he tells, helps Conor work through his flurry of crippling emotions to a place of acceptance, both of his situation and of himself.
The familiar tropes of A Monsters Calls’ core narrative—lonely only child, art as a form of escape, prep school bullies, absent fathers—quickly cede ground to Bayona’s confident, baroque filmmaking. Previously recognized for his sweeping work on The Impossible, Bayona injects this story with the fantastical elements of the yew monster and his stories, which are told through a lovely, watercolor-like style of animation that is the antithesis of a cartoon. And the monster itself, growlingly voice-acted by Liam Neeson, is an arboreal marvel of CGI effects, bristling with natural energy and preternatural menace.
A Monster Calls grounds its fantasy in the strong acting skills brought to the human characters. Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Rogue One) plays Conor’s mum with a combination of fierce determination and a hint of artistic play. Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell are equally effective in the smaller roles of grandmother and dad. But the film really belongs to Lewis MacDougall, the young actor who plays Conor. He makes you believe both Conor’s pain and his desire to seek solutions, maybe even absolution, from the imposing imaginary creatures.
I’m not sure that A Monster Calls covers any new ground in terms of story, but it does tell this familiar emotional tale with power and a compelling visual sensibility that is most captivating.
In his handful of features (Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special), writer-director Jeff Nichols has carved out a unique and compelling niche for characters on the edges of modern society: a working man convinced of impending doom; lost boys in thrall to a mysterious, perhaps dangerous drifter; and a father determined to protect his uniquely gifted song. Add Loving to this impressive, albeit short list.
Loving is based on the true story of the Lovings, a 1950s Virginia couple whose mixed-race marriage provoked a landmark Supreme Court decision that eliminated miscegenation laws across the country. With rich, quiet performances by Ruth Negga as Mildred and Joel Edgerton as Richard, Loving wisely relegates the big issues to background (the actual Supreme Court case is almost a throwaway) and forsakes the expected dramatic, righteous speeches to focus on the human drama of two characters pained and baffled by the wider social impact of their relationship.
The film’s title ultimately confirms that the real, resonant story to be told here is not that of Loving v. Virginia but instead the very act of loving another human being.
In the mid-to-late ‘90s, a group of talented young actors began learning their craft at the Wilmington Drama League. Twenty years later, they remain connected.
A hungry chicken walks into a McDonald’s.
“Do you have people nuggets?” the chicken asks.
“Well, what kind of nuggets do you have?”
“Bwawk!” “Quack! Quack!” “Moooooo!” The chicken has brought reinforcements.
The cashier is an unwitting player in this bit of barnyard improv. Someone buys a milkshake to smooth things over, and the animals exit McDonald’s stage left and return to the Wilmington Drama League, where they will continue to rehearse The Ugly Duckling.
Twenty years later, that quacking duck is about to wrap his performance as the Big Bad in the rebooted Ghostbusters. Another member of that menagerie still performs with a chicken, five days a week on Sprout’s The Sunny Side Up Show.
And the hungry chicken? Aubrey is doing just fine, thank you.
Aubrey Plaza. Neil Casey. Carly Ciarrocchi. Keith Powell. John Gallagher, Jr. Rory Donavan. Seth Kirschner.
If you live in Delaware, chances are excellent that you know someone who knows one of them, or you know one of them yourself. They certainly know each other, dating back to the time they all spent at the Wilmington Drama League in the mid-to-late ‘90s, through their early working days and their first big breaks, the awards, the steady work, the magazine covers, and genuine stardom … and back to Delaware for fundraisers and benefits and the occasional stop at the Charcoal Pit.
But let’s return to the beginning.
In the mid-‘90s, the Chrysalis Players were a new group within the Wilmington Drama League. Chrysalis was designed to give young performers an opportunity to write, cast, direct, act and produce their own shows and one-act plays. What they did with that freedom was up to them.
“We went crazy bananas creating things and building things and breaking things and ruining things,” Powell says.
And learning things. Chrysalis Players had their own board, which shadowed the board of the Drama League and had its own decision-making authority.
“We’re theater dorks,” Casey says. “So many people have their high school theater program. And I have that. But the Drama League was the place where the especially intense theater nerds from every school found their clubhouse.”
Many got their start in adult productions. John Gallagher Jr. (HBO’s The Newsroom, Broadway’s Spring Awakening and American Idiot) first showed up on the Drama League stage as a boy in Frankenstein. An auspicious production of Peter Pan featured the debuts of Ciarrocchi (The Sunny Side Up Show), Powell (30 Rock, The Newsroom and Keith Broke His Leg) and Rory Donavan (Broadway’s Finding Neverland: The Musical).
“Unlike a sports team or something, when you’re working on a play, it’s a community of all ages that are basically equal,” Ciarrocchi says. “I took it so seriously as an 8-year-old.”
Ciarrocchi’s time included acting as a dwarf alongside her six real-life siblings and appearing as Milky White in a production of Into the Woods. (“That part is usually played by a cardboard cut-out,” she jokes.) But it was performing in the Jeff Walker Youth One-Act Festival where these kids found their creative incubator —and their place to shine.
“The one-act festival is the thing that was very unique to us as young people, and really influenced the reason why we’re all working still today,” Powell says. “I think that it gave us a sense that you can create things yourself. You don’t have to wait for someone.”
Cast of Characters
If you were casting those Chrysalis Players of the late ‘90s in a John Hughes movie, it wouldn’t be hard to see who would play what role. Johnny is the hot older guy, and the object of many a schoolgirl crush. Keith is the driven, focused one. Aubrey’s the oddball. Neil’s the comic relief.
“I became everyone’s younger, annoying brother,” admits Rory Donavan. “But the cool thing about the drama league kids is that we were all oddballs.”
Oddballs, perhaps—and certainly committed ones. At the time, few could have predicted how many would move on to mainstream success.
“Yes, often, we realized how incredibly talented the group of kids were who were here,” says Kathy Buterbaugh, the official adult-in-the-room with the Chrysalis Players back in the day. “We did not recognize fully how unique that talent pool was. We just figured it was everywhere. But it’s really not.”
Buterbaugh, the sole employee at the Wilmington Drama League to this day, keeps some of its secrets—but she doesn’t keep them very close to the vest. She says she quietly permitted the barnyard invasion of McDonald’s (though she did insist that a milkshake be purchased). She’ll tell you about the performance of Cinderella when Plaza eschewed the original choreography in the final performance to launch into the Macarena. She knows about the time a bunch of Delaware girls with stars in their eyes went to see Gallagher in Spring Awakening and hung around the stage door to bring him a Charcoal Pit chocolate milkshake—packed in dry ice, no less.
And unlike the rest of Delaware, she’s never surprised to see them popping up on talk shows or movie trailers—possibly because she doesn’t own a TV. “When I catch what they’re doing, it’s intentional, so I have to Hulu them or whatever,” she says.
Many of those Chrysalis Players embarked on different education and career paths after their days with the Wilmington Drama League—but the time spent and lessons learned in that building on the corner of Market Street and Lea Boulevard stayed with all of them.
“The thing is that it made for a very natural transition for a lot of us—Seth and me and
Aubrey—to the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York, which is underneath a grocery store,” Casey says. “It’s just a moldy 200-seat black box in a not particularly nice area in the Penn Station region of Manhattan.”
But it had that familiar spirit of people coming together to put on a show. And it felt like home.
Keith Powell remembers the night in an apartment in Astoria—“on that one block in Astoria Queens where everyone in Delaware seemed to move to”—sitting among alumni of the Wilmington Drama League and watching TV as Gallagher won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, wishing his friend Seth (that would be Seth Kirschner) a happy birthday during his acceptance speech.
It was the first big trophy won by any of them, but it wasn’t the first time their private and professional and Delaware lives would cross. Some things you might expect—like Kirschner and Plaza both appearing on 30 Rock with Powell. But far more often, you’ll see them supporting each other in small, self-produced work. There’s the Upright Citizen’s Brigade show “That’s My Booze” starring Kirschner and Plaza … and directed by Casey.
There’s Powell and Plaza popping up in the YouTube video “The Dark Side of Ring Pop,” shot by Kirschner. And the web series “Keith Powell Directs a Play” stars Plaza and Kirschner.
They act, write, direct and produce in a digital world that didn’t exist when they were performing at the Drama League, but for which they were uniquely prepared to flourish.
And—always—they had each other.
“I think what makes us particularly unique was that we all inspired each other, and we all allowed ourselves to be inspired by each other,” Powell says. “I think we’re all each other’s cheerleaders.”
He remembers giving Plaza advice on getting an agent when she appeared on 30 Rock. Ciarrocchi remembers getting pointers on improv from Plaza when she was going to school in Chicago. Donavan learned from all of them when he was running around the Drama League starting fires. (Note: He denies starting actual fires.)
“Being younger and looking up to them, everyone was the most talented thing I’d ever seen,” Donavan says. “And looking back, they were.”
And though a few have become household names, they continue to be cheerleaders for talent from Delaware. In conversation, every single person interviewed for this story dropped a name of someone else who’s in the entertainment industry and working and doing well: Filmmaker Jeremy O’Keefe. Actor/playwright Patrick Flynn. Actress/musician Heather Robb.
“The big secret in this business is that people are working and making a living long before people stop feeling sorry for them,” Casey says.
About 20 years have passed since the birth of the Chrysalis Players, and young playwrights and actors and set designers still gather in that building off Market Street, rehearsing one-act plays in the wings, in the lobby, in the offices—anywhere they can find space.
Buterbaugh tells the youngsters stories of Plaza and Casey, Powell and Ciarrocchi, Gallagher, Donavan and Kirschner, and how they left the cocoon, spread their wings, and learned to fly.
“They’re unintentionally inspiring a whole new generation of artists,” she says. “The youngest director in this year’s one-act festival was probably 12.”
They all come back to visit—usually in a low-key fashion, but sometimes to premiere a movie, headline a fundraiser or to direct a show. And they hold onto what they took from the Drama League —sometimes literally.
“I think I still have it,” Casey says. He’s talking about the duck costume. “If my mom threw it out, she didn’t tell me.”
Some are returning for the long haul. Donavan just bought a home in Wilmington, from where he’ll commute to continue working in Broadway’s Finding Neverland. After years of professional work, he recently directed Young Frankenstein for The Milburn Stone Theater in North East, Md., and the return to community theater refreshed him.
“The sole reason everyone is there is that they love theater,” he says. “And it’s so nice to go back and rediscover that.”
• You know her as: April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation.
• You should see: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates with Anna Kendrick, and Dirty Grandpa with Robert De Niro, her two upcoming movies. NEIL CASEY
• You know him as: A writer (and occasional player) on Saturday Night Live, Inside Amy Schmuer and Kroll Show.
• You should see: Ghostbusters, where he’s the bad guy. KEITH POWELL
• You know him as: James “Toofer” Spurlock on 30 Rock.
• You should see: Keith Broke His Leg, his new web series. JOHN GALLAGHER JR.
• You know him as: Jim Harper on The Newsroom.
• You should see: James Gunn’s The Belko Experiment. (He’s also popped up with some music gigs in New York and Philly lately.) CARLY CIARROCCHI
• You know her as: Carly on The Sunny Side Up Show.
• You should see: The show “moving” to the city. (Your 4-year-old is very excited.) RORY DONAVAN
• You know him as: An ensemble player in Finding Neverland on Broadway.
• You should see: Whenever he gets to fill in as Captain Hook. SETH KIRSHNER
• You know him as: Josh on NBC’s Lipstick Jungle.
• You should see: His starring role in the indie romantic comedy Completely Normal.