Review: “The Monkey Trial” presented by tgSTAN and Theatre Junction

Vicki Trask

  • Calgary Critic

Fiction that offers a glimpse at life into another generation is always fascinating to me. We see similarities and differences, we learn from our mistakes – or refuse to acknowledge them – and every moment in history reflects on the life we’re living today. More than grand memorialized events, I like seeing moments in time that spark an evolution (pun intended) in the minds of a nation. That’s why I find myself drawn to historical dramas like “The Monkey Trial” presented by tgSTAN and Theatre Junction at The GRAND. I attended a performance of this nearly three hour production on Thursday November 3rd which followed the trial of The State of Tennessee v. John Scopes, a biology teacher charged with illegally teaching the theory of evolution in 1925 Dayton. Three men (Frank Vercruyssen, Robby Cleiren, and Stijn Van Opstal) use the transcript to retell the eight day trial while playing all the characters, often passing off the burden in the middle of a scene, claiming to have changed nothing of the text from that week in 1925. 

Their co-ordination and memorization alone were very impressive. It’s very clear from the very beginning that they have their scripts with them on stage and for the most part, they were very subtle in checking and following along and often flipping pages to find their next line. I didn’t have a problem with that because unlike every show I’ve seen (especially in the last few months), this show wasn’t about the acting. It was about the words and the story they were telling. I much preferred that they carry a piece of paper with them so that every “and” and the” was in the proper place. One of the actors completely broke and started laughing; the sound effects machine broke and they simply described what we would be hearing for the rest of the show; several moments in the production involved completely performing to the audience with no pretext of character; and yet I didn’t really care. The laughing did bother me but I was much more forgiving in this environment than I would be in other performances. 

For the intense text that was being presented, the atmosphere maintained a very casual air. I wasn’t invested in the characters or the trial because the program (not to mention, a quick Google search) told me exactly how it ends. I wasn’t invested in the set or the lighting because the houselights stayed dim and the set was predictably functional. I couldn’t follow one actor’s performance because at least two of them played the same character and would constantly switch off as the transcript demanded someone else speak. It was interesting to watch each actor’s interpretation of these people from the trial; obviously they were very similar but each character took on their own life – if only for a moment. 

I found this performance to be remarkably unremarkable. A pessimist might describe this show as actors simply replaying an historical event – with scripts in hand, no less. An optimist might call it a new and grounded interpretation of an all-too-familiar topic. I choose to take the middle ground and call it a focused and honest re-enactment. It wasn’t about acting and creating a grand, dynamic character; it was about presenting the text as they really were. That is exactly what I saw so I felt I could leave the theatre with a sense of satisfaction. 

Although I have to admit, it was very wordy – which is expected in any court proceedings – but it was often very dry text which isn’t the most engaging for an audience. It was difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that this wasn’t fiction. This wasn’t a piece of dramatic fantasy, and watching a real trial isn’t like watching Law and Order. I thought it was very educational, and I thought the text was well memorised but yes, I was bored. For such a ground breaking case that launched several works of fiction (including the play and later movie “Inherit the Wind”), the trial was almost anti-sensationalist. While I agree that the Scope Trial was important to the history of the American Legal System, I encourage a prepared mind when you go to see this show. I applaud the actors’ hard work and clear dedication to the text but ultimately I think this show was good but not great.

Belgian theatre company tgSTAN has brought their production of “The Monkey Trial” to Theatre Junction GRAND until November 5th, marking this as the Canadian Premiere of this piece of documentary theatre.