Surprisingly Deep “See Monsters of the Deep”
By Sandy MacDonald
(July 7, 2022) Spoiler alert straight ahead: the main monster in question isn’t real. If you’re somewhat familiar with Nantucket lore, you already know the story when you head to “See Monsters From the Deep” at the White Heron Theater. And if not – if the story is new to you – the program notes will tell you.
Even so, in writer/director Mark Shanahan’s ingenious rendering, there’s more to this story than meets the surface.
It’s the summer of 1937, Tony Sarg, a world famous puppeteer and provocateur — and part-time Nantucketer — known for creating whimsical floats for Macy’s first Thanksgiving parades, decided to play a little trick to boost tourism.
He would create a sea monster, with enough rumors to bring a Pathé News film crew to the island. What better way to put pre-chic Nantucket on the national map?
This publicity stunt really happened. It’s his storytelling that cleverly, in Shanahan’s charming extrapolation, enlivens the play. Perhaps the biggest mystery is trying to guess what Jonathan Brody – playing Sarg and just about everyone else – will look like next.
Brody plays many roles – so many, it’s a challenge to count.
In a 30-second scene, he switches characters five times.
Among her most memorable roles: Mrs. Maloney, the crowd-haired Irish innkeeper at Jared Coffin’s Ocean House Hotel; “incredibly handsome” proto-prepster Ted Abernathy with “chiseled jawbone” and “piercing blue eyes”, who poops the monster at an impromptu town meeting; smoothing Sally Folger, “Nantucket’s own Shirley Temple,” who must first be plucked from the Atheneum stage, which a clueless newcomer pronounces as “the Atheneneum.”
All locations in the play will be familiar to even newbies to today’s island, along with eternal challenges such as enduring the blast of the ferry’s horn or navigating the ankle-threatening cobbled streets of the city. Many of the characters are based on semi-historical, local characters full legends.
The washashore directing the action in the play is the aptly named, entirely fictional /Morton Plank, a shy young employee of a Brooklyn shoe store (show designer Steve Pacek), who, from personal experience, is prone to think that Sarg’s monster is real.
He is haunted by a “mermaid” – like an encounter on the high seas he experienced in his youth. Sarg, touched by Plank’s childish gullibility, invited the young man to come and discover the monster for himself. Morton is determined to get another sighting at all costs – his many, many phobias be damned.
“I’m pantophobic,” Morton half boasts, “a bit scared of everything.”
In Shanahan’s rendition, Sarg puts this anxious bundle of anxiety into a joyful pursuit, akin to a treasure hunt. Sarg himself remains frustratingly elusive, leaving just enough clues to lead the way. young boy on. It’s a plane flight, with a stage prop that will bring it to life. There is also a novel, nicely staged with a tailor’s dummy draped in yellow gauze.
Kudos are due all around for an effective and evocative staging. The folk-style proscenium which houses memorabilia of Sarg’s work; the clever, precisely timed sound effects by Tony nominee John Gromada, which makes it sound like there was a Foley sound effects team working behind the scenes; the subtle luminous design of Christina Watanabe and Steven Zhang, who conjure up – with the help of Pacek’s gymnastic contortions and a bubble machine – a compelling underwater dive.
Will Morton learn to overcome his overall anxiety and confront the supposed monster? The journey Morton is embarking on is clearly worth taking, even for those of us who assume we know how it ends.
“See Monsters of the Deep,” White Heron Theater, 5 North Water St., through July 20. Visit www.whiteherontheatre.org for tickets, dates and times.
Sandy MacDonald (@sandymacdonald) is a freelance critic and Drama Desk constituent.