It can be good and sometimes even great to discover an unknown writer and Justin McDevitt is a new one on me. His website (JustinWritesPlays) tells me he is resident in New York though originally from Boston and has written about half a dozen pieces thus far. The website also reveals his interest in the intersection between theatre and mental health and his respect for the monologue form as developed by Alan Bennett and his Talking Heads. Clearly he had this in mind when constructing a set of solo pieces during the pandemic; even the series title, Severed Heads, acts a sort of homage. Although the plays may be watched in any order I decided to work through the sequence as presented on the website and split them into two programmes.
Thus, I started with the interestingly titled Martha Arbogast And Her Kingdom Of Earthly Delights. Martha is a highly respected high school teacher – at least the way she tells it; indeed, she has, apparently, won awards for her work. She tells us she is going to retire and go and live in Texas but that the principal is trying to hang on to her skills particularly during a time when most of the students are being educated at home via the internet. Her one concern is what to do with her elderly mother (they currently share a home) but she will cross that bridge when she comes to it. However, Martha has a rather dark secret in the shape of her alter ego Queenie, one that probably wouldn’t sit well with her position as a respected member of the community. Actually, it turns out that she has more than one dark secret… but to say more would be to spoil the narrative. Polly McKie does a fine job at showing us Martha’s (and Queenie’s) different facets as she works through a number of short scenes which trace the character across a difficult period in her life. It was a good opener and set the tone for what was to come.
Next up was Paul’s Afternoon Shift which centres on reactions to George Floyd’s killing and the Black Lives Matter protests. Paul is a resting actor who is making ends meet as a bartender. The trouble, as the rest of the world sees it, is that he has opinions and is not afraid to share them much to the disgruntlement of some of the regular customers and his manager who think people in his position ought to be seen and not heard. Eventually things take a dark turn as action is taken and Paul finds himself up against a wall – nicely highlighted by the choice of location in the second half. Steven Ralph plays the character with confidence but for some reason distractingly looks to one side of the camera which tends to lessen the force of what he is saying; the one line that is delivered straight down the lens is so much more powerful. Maybe this is a deliberate artistic choice but for me it didn’t really work; these sort of monologues are essentially confessionals and it is hard enough as it is to connect remotely when engagement seems to be being avoided.
There were no such problems with the third and final piece this time round with Mr Sandman Is Following You. The key words in the title are the last two referring as they do both to social media traction and the rather more creepy inference of being stalked; they can, of course be one and the same. Sophie is a lifestyle vlogger cheerily handing out relationship advice to her adoring public who are numerous beyond her wildest dreams and who she uses to validate her self-worth. She does deals with promoters and is rewarded and feted but her past keeps coming back to haunt her in the shape of her childhood fear, the creepily evoked Mr Sandman who inhabits the closet. Sophie’s life and lifestyle rapidly unravel as she spirals into depression and paranoia but just as she is reaching rock bottom she meets Tucker who picks her back up again; that eventually comes at a heavy price as reality proves more deadly than fantasy. The last section of the play is, to say the least, strange. Tina Himaya approaches her character like the layers of an onion which are gradually stripped away to reveal a centre full of insecurity and self-doubt. It’s a nuanced performance of a person on the edge defeated by her own inner fears.
I really didn’t know what to expect from this writer and these monologues but was glad I had taken the time to investigate as they are unusual pieces with a distinctly dark edge to them appropriate for the dark times in which we are living. I will be interested to see how the sextet of pieces pans out when I return for more Severed Heads in a few days’ time.
For reviews of the second three monologues in this series click here
Severed Heads are available from Justin McDevitt’s website – click here
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