THE MONSTER TRILOGY by R.M. Vaughan, directed by Moynan King, with Caroline Gillis, Ann Holloway and Kirsten Johnson. Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander). Opens tonight (Thursday, September 22) and runs to October 9, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $15-$29, Sunday pwyc. 416-975-8555. Rating: NNNNN
Playwright R.M. Vaughan knows that the most horrible fiends don't live in Stephen King books. They live down the street. Or maybe even right inside us. The season opener at Buddies, a series of monologues called The Monster Trilogy, lays bare the thoughts of three pretty awful women: a child murderer (The Susan Smith Tapes), a redneck cop (A Visitation Of St. Teresa Of Avila Upon Constable Margaret Chance) and a reverend obsessed with the catastrophic deaths of young people (Dead Teenagers).
But as initially offputting as the women are, Vaughan's nuanced exploration of their characters makes us want to listen to their stories.
"What's appealing about the writing is that he's not concerned about outside logic. Rather, he goes for the irrational side of the characters," says Kirsten Johnson, who plays Susan Smith, the real-life woman who drowned her two children.
"And the monologues are all so poetic, while staying conversational at some level," adds Caroline Gillis, who plays the reverend. "The result is a poetry of the everyday, sometimes dense but easily recognizable."
There's also more than a touch of dark humour. The comedy is most evident in the foul-mouthed policewoman's monologue revealing a religious and moral belief system riddled with racism and homophobia.
"All three women are trying to tell their side of a story," continues Gillis over a lunch of bagels and cream cheese. "They're attempting to show you through their eyes why they act as they do. The reverend isn't trying to rationalize her addiction to grisly deaths, but to enlighten the church superior who hears her story."
In fact, each woman believes she and no one else has the truth; their monologues are an attempt to force that "logical" reality on skeptical listeners.
"That's what monsters really are," asserts painter, writer and actor Johnson. "They're outside of what we see as acceptable. Not only do they have their own motivations, but they're truly independent in ways that have horrible ramifications."
Both agree that in some ways, the fact that these characters are female wrongdoers makes it harder for audiences to relate.
This, in turn, creates an enormous challenge for the actors, since at some level each of the three characters is looking for validation.
In The Susan Smith Tapes, for instance, the jailed Smith is creating videos for Oprah, Jerry Springer and Barbara Walters, justifying her actions and looking for acceptance from audiences small and large. She, like the other two women, presents the most awful events in the most ordinary way.
"Smith was loved and pitied when she was seen as a victim whose children had died, but the public turned on her when they discovered she had betrayed their trust," notes Johnson. "She's trying to regain that initial love."
The three works first ran in various Rhubarb! festivals between 1996 and 2002, but the performers and director Moynan King thought they should have another life and would have an even bigger impact if staged together.
"I remember that at the initial run in 1998," says Johnson, "one guy came over to me afterwards and was shaking when he talked about the show. I thought he wanted to punch me."
Indeed, the script walks a fine line, for while it's not designed to inspire pity, some people are chilled by how out of touch with reality Smith is. And both actors admit that they feel something for the troubled young Smith, who had a family history of deaths.
"The reaction to my show was amazingly mixed," recalls Gillis, who's known for her performances in Daniel MacIvor's plays. "Some people laughed and laughed, while others were quiet. The humour is so odd that you're not sure which reaction is correct.
"At some level I think my character is the least heinous of the three, though she certainly has a superiority complex.
"Also," she says with an air of quiet defiance, "I agree with some of her beliefs. That doesn't make her any less outrageous and unlikeable; she wants empathy but doesn't offer any to others."
And what's it like to play characters like these night after night? The actors laugh.
"We're trying to get puppies in the dressing room," answers Gillis, "dogs that we can cuddle after the show."