Holding out for a hero

Philly Fringe 2019: Nick Gillette presents Myths and Monsters: An Improvised Hero’s Journey’

2 minute read
An homage to classical heroes, or a send-up? The ensemble of ‘Myths and Monsters.’ (Photo by Mike Marbach.)
An homage to classical heroes, or a send-up? The ensemble of ‘Myths and Monsters.’ (Photo by Mike Marbach.)

Myths and Monsters, a new improvised performance from Almanac Dance Circus Theatre cofounder Nick Gillette, draws heavily from Homeric epics and ancient mythology to detail their interpretation of the hero’s journey. The performance combines a noble quest, vengeful gods, and an everyman hero that echoes Dorothy Gale’s simple desire to go home. The production varies from one performance to the next, giving each audience a unique experience.

The book-lovers’ sacrilege

For a concept that relies so deeply on mythology and love of story, the performance opens with an act that amounts to sacrilege for book lovers: three randomly chosen pages are ripped from books, and the first sentence of each purports to inform the beginning, middle, and end of the piece—a concept that offers no actual narrative structure for the subsequent performance, rendering it stylish with no substance.

The ensuing play is 60 minutes of beautifully rendered portrayals, thanks to an ensemble cast of eight, that never seem to combine into a cohesive narrative. When well done, improv should have a sense of fluidity and anticipation—here, the effort behind the effect is obvious, and the story can never decide whether it wants to be a direct homage to the classical hero myth or a farcical send-up of the same.

The performance would also benefit from a greater understanding of the constraints imposed by its timeline. The final third of the drama suffers from ending fatigue, as what was previously an established mythological arc becomes more grandiose and contradictory, tucking in extraneous tidbits late in the game and padding the performance in a way that feels both desperate and rushed.

The reactive hero

Myths and Monsters is inspired by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the definitive assessment of the hero archetype that compares Odysseus to King Arthur and beyond, providing the blueprint for future heroes like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. What all of these figures have in common is their everyman status: their fundamental humanity is the key to defeating the larger-than-life foes that fate pits them against. Through guile, skill, and ingenuity, those workaday Davids can defeat their respective Goliaths, and it is this element that Myths and Monsters is so fundamentally lacking. The everyman hero spends the journey reacting, and almost never takes an active role in the story that happens around him.

Each scene contains pathos, humor, and a daring courage from the participants. Their success in embracing their characters deserves a stronger story to embody those roles. Here’s hoping the actors can find a more worthy tale to explore their talents.

What, When, Where

Myths and Monsters: An Improvised Hero’s Journey. By Nick Gillette. Through September 7, 2019 at the Philly Improv Theater at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or

The Adrienne is an ADA-compliant venue.

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