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Stage Review: Monsters of American Cinema at the Matrix Theatre

Note: Since originally posting on April 5, this preview has been updated with a review, which you can find below the original text.

Monsters of the American Cinema, a new production from the Rogue Machine theatre company, opens this weekend at the Matrix Theatre in West Hollywood. A drama filtered through the lens of classic horror movies, the story focuses on two characters working at a drive-in theatre near San Diego, which ekes out a living by playing double bills of older titles. Remy (Kevin Daniels) is a gay black man raising his late husband’s son, Pup (Logan Leonardo Arditty), a troubled teenager suffering from recurring nightmares, which have diminished but not disappeared since he began watching FrankensteinThe Wolf Man, and (his personal favorite) Creature from the Black Lagoon. Their familial bond is challenged when Pup, along with his friends, starts bullying a transgender teen at school.

Monsters of American Cinema at the Matrix Theatre
Monsters of American Cinema at the Matrix Theatre

Written by Christian St. Croix, Monsters of the American Cinema takes its name from a word game Remy and Pup play, setting challenges such as naming the female leads in horror classics (e.g., “Mina in Dracula”). “The seeds of this story were planted when my best friend was struggling with addiction and he asked if I would take his son while he got himself together,” says St. Croix in the press notes. “At the time, I still felt like a teenager myself. I weighed the question of caring for a teenager that I didn’t share blood or skin with, worrying if I was emotionally mature enough to do so, and terrified of messing it up. Who would you consider your found family? Who feels as deep as a sibling, a cousin or a parent to you even though you’re not related?”

The result is a ninety-minute duet between the only two actors, divided between dueling monologues and character interaction. Horror fans will certainly feel at home in the drive-in milieu (the lobby and corridors of the Matrix theatre are decorated with life-side standees of the monsters and posters from their films), but at its heart Monsters of the American Cinema is about human relationships, featuring two power-house performances by the actors. The production has a couple of terrifying moments, courtesy of Pup’s nightmares, but mostly the monsters serve as metaphors for the worst in human behavior. As Remy notes, humans hide their darker sides while monsters reveal their nature in their appearance.

Monsters of the American Cinema begins with performances on Saturday, April 6 at 8pm and on Sunday, April 7 at 3pm. Both performances will be followed by a reception.

Review: Monsters of American Cinema (Rogue Machine Theatre, 2024)
4

Rating Scale

1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See

The title Monsters of the American Cinema suggests a documentary or, failing that, some kind of hipster comedy with characters spouting endless reams of Tarantino-esque dialogue about their favorite films. Christian St. Croix’s play is definitely neither of those things, although its two characters do discuss classic horror movies. Rather, St. Croix is exploiting the potential for imaginary monsters, whether on screen or in nightmares, to help us process traumas and fears too fearsome to face directly.

We see this most clearly in “Pup” (Logan Leonardo Arditt). The kid has problems. He never knew his mother; his gay father was a drug addict who died with a needle in his arm. As a child Pup suffered from nightmares and acted out in a destructive manner. Since discovering the old horror movies that he and his stepfather Remy (Kevin Daniels) screen at their old drive-in, Pup has achieved a certain level of normalcy, as if seeing his fears embodied on the big screen has made them manageable (though the nightmares, unbeknownst to Remy, continue).

Now a teenager, Pup’s favorite monster movie is The Creature from the Black Lagoon, which tells you almost everything you need to know about his current state of mind, though the play never spells it out. Now a teenager, Pup is developing an interest in the opposite sex, so it is easy to imagine how he would relate to the Creature’s hopeless pursuit of a beautiful woman who sees him as a monster. The difference is that the Creature’s monstrous nature is revealed in his appearance, while the monsters troubling Pup are buried in his psyche.

Essentially, the titular “Monsters of the American Cinema” provide subtext for the play’s two-person drama. Remy and Pup have a solid relationship, but it is entering that awkward teen period when Pup is taking the first steps toward adulthood, which includes establishing independence between him and his surrogate father.

Monsters of the American Cinema Stage Review
Pup (Logan Leonardo Arditty) come home to find that Remy (Kevin-Daniels) is showering after a “date” with another man.

At first this takes the typical form – hanging out with friends that Pup doesn’t bring home to meet Remy – but underneath that are the twin dividing lines of race and sexual orientation: Remy is a gay black man; Pup is a straight white teen. These fault lines fracture unexpectedly: After urging Remy to date again, Pup nearly freaks out when he comes home to find that Remy has had sex with another man. Meanwhile, Pup is shooting video of himself and his friends calling each other the n-word and bullying a male teen who prefers wearing dresses and nail polish – behavior that leads Pup’s would-be girlfriend to loathe him as much as the Creature from the Black Lagoon‘s leading lady loathes the Gill Man.

Ultimately, Monsters of the American Cinema is about bridging the chasms that have opened between Remy and Pup. It’s engaging and heartfelt but also very funny. The amusing dialogue captures a sense of reality that sells the story to the audience, whether or not you are familiar with horror movies or the problems inherent in being a gay black stepfather to a white straight teenager. Tasked with holding audience attention for over ninety minutes, Daniels and Arditt pull it off in a big way. Both display a impressively wide range without straining to reach the right notes.

Dracula screens in background

The set design captures the play’s single setting, a mobile home where Remy and Pup reside next to their drive-in. Film clips (I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Dracula, Frankenstein, etc) projected on the set’s walls not only convey the movies being screened and discussed but also act, in lieu of stage curtains, as transitions between scenes, setting expectations for the action to follow. There is also a clever use of lighting to suggest rain, nighttime, and shifting moods – including a couple of nightmare scenes that intrude without warning into the narrative, at first leaving us wondering whether what is happening is supposed to be real. Here, Monsters of the American Cinema comes closest to depicting the monsters in its title, with both Remy and Pup acting out the night terrors afflicting Pup.

In the least charitable light, the drive-in movie aspect of Monsters of American Cinema could be seen as a hook added to drag in horror fans who might not otherwise be interested in a story about a gay black man and his white stepson. Even if true, the hook works – let’s be honest: it put the play on our radar – but we prefer to think of the hook as a gateway, opening a path to new and interesting territory. Using genres is a way to appeal to audiences, and amidst the numerous entertainment opportunities clamoring for our attention, exploring horror-adjacent material is a way for horror fans to expand our boundaries, discovering works worthy of our attention even if they are not exactly the kind of thing we usually watch. Monsters of American Cinema is a great example of how this should work, luring us in with the promise of familiar terrors and delivering something that simultaneously thwarts and satisfies expectations. It is so good that you will not be disappointed it is more drama and comedy than horror.

Monsters of the American Cinema runs through May 19, with performances at 8pm on Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays, and at 3pm on Sundays (no performances on April 8 and May 13). Rogue Machine is located in the Matrix Theatre at 7657 Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. Tickets are $45 for general seating, $35 for seniors, and $25 for students with ID. Discount shows take place on April 12 ($10+), April 19 ($15+), and April 26, May 3 & 10 ($20+). For more information, call 855-585-5185, or visit the official website: roguemachinetheatre.org.

Cast: Kevin Daniels as Remy Washington, Logan Leonardo Arditt as Peter “Pup” Miller.

Credits: Written by Christian St. Croix. Directed by John Perrin Flynn. Scenic Design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz. Sound Design by Christopher Moscatiello. Costume Design by Christine Cover Ferro. Lighting Design by Ric Zimmerman. Graphic & Projection Design by Michelle Hanzelova-Bierbauer. Violence Design by Ned Mochel. Stage Manager by Rachel Ann Manheimer. Technical Director by Ryan Wilson. A Rogue Machine Theatre Production. Run time: 95 mins.

Monsters of American Cinema photographs

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.