For the premiere of We’ve Battled Monsters Before, ArtsWest transformed itself into a creative fantasyland reminiscent of the chocolate room in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. However, musical instruments are scattered across the stage rather than oversized candy and while there is no chocolate fountain in sight, a tree composed of fabric and paper towers over the audience. Despite the set’s inherent minimalism, the space bursts with color and creativity, as does the show.
Justin Huertas, the creator of Monsters, was TeenTix’s first-ever Crush of the Month, and for good reason. The talented writer, composer, and performer explores his intersectional identities through musical allegories that entertain and inspire empathy among Seattle audiences. However, this was not always the case—according to a January 2010 interview with TeenTix, Huertas “enjoy[ed] writing plays and songs, but the two didn’t mix well for him when he tried to write a musical.” Based on Monsters, I can assure you that is no longer the case.
The two-person musical fantasy is loosely based on the 16th-century Filipino epic poem Ibong Adarna, which follows three princes’ battle to inherit their father’s throne. Although the show has a narrative throughline, Huertas presents the scenes out of order and abruptly shifts between magical realism and anachronistic quips about FaceTime. The nonlinear story is challenging to navigate at first, but the hazy timeline is assumedly intentional since the show begins with a character trying to piece together foggy memories. Such creative risks don’t always succeed, but they make the viewing experience far more interesting.
Joining the charismatic Huertas onstage is Rheanna Atendido, a phenomenal vocalist and musical polyglot. Together, the two seamlessly switch between singing, speaking, and strumming thanks to the effortless staging of Matthew Wright, ArtsWest’s artistic director. The show’s strongest moments inventively incorporate the process of creating music as a form of expression, just as dance is utilized in other musicals.
An issue I have with many new musicals is the absence of a memorable score. However, Huertas’ music in Monsters is simple yet dynamic, maintaining variety without sacrificing coherence. While I was not fond of the monotonously cheerful musical interludes in which the two performers sing traditional Filipino recipes, they contributed a different perspective to immerse the audience in Filipino culture and emphasize the show’s theme of staying in touch with your roots.
Unfortunately, the show’s extended dialogue sequences often dip into a pool of predictability, regurgitating lines we’ve all heard too many times before. Knowing what characters are going to say in advance makes many of the more sentimental moments ring insincere. Nonetheless, the inherent connection between the two performers makes these moments forgivable.
Huertas weaves together a rainbow of storytelling and musical styles, making Monsters a sort of musical Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total artwork.” While the word Gesamtkunstwerk is admittedly pretentious, as are many Gesamtkunstwerks, Monsters maintains a sense of groundedness in its minimalism, making the experience far more intimate and thus more powerful.
Monsters is not perfect, but Huertas’ inspired musical storytelling provides a refreshing return to live theatre brimming with energy, heart, and pure imagination.
We've Battled Monsters Before played November 26-December 26, 2021. For more information see here.