Monica Hunken. Photo by Hunter Canning.
BOTTOM LINE: Monica Hunken's talent as both a performer and a storyteller makes this solo show immensely humorous and compelling.
As a bike enthusiast, performer and playwright Monica Hunken has an unusual pattern when it comes to international travel: she forgoes the use of trains and buses, preferring instead to bike across the country alone, using the unusual places and people she encounters as fodder for her work. The Wild Finish is the third installment in her bicycle trilogy, which includes the well received Blondie in Arabia, which chronicles her adventures in the Middle East.
The Wild Finish opens with Hunken lamenting that her only memories of her Polish grandfather are that of a sick man that brought out the worst in her mother. She spends countless hours of her childhood watching the strange, sickly man slip closer to death in his hospital bed. After her grandfather’s death from cancer her mother keeps his ashes in a bag in her bedroom. Hunken holds the bag in her hands as a young girl feeling the weight of a life, of “all the thoughts and dreams and ambitions never achieved.”
By the time Hunken is college-aged she decides to leave California for New York, hoping to unshackle herself both from the weight of her family as well as her Polish heritage. (The dark family secrets she is seeking to escape are only lightly outlined later on). Once she is on the other side of the country, Hunken feels that she can breath again, noticing that her chronic stomach aches have ceased and a deep new calm comes over her.
Hunken soon develops an interest in theater, and begins studying performance art. Her interest brings her “full circle” as she soon finds that her grandfather was also passionate about performance art and was friends with some of the artists she studies. Intrigued by how much she doesn’t know about her grandfather, Hunken sets off to Warsaw, Poland to solve the mystery of her grandfather, trying to piece together the story of his life as well as gain some sense of her Polish heritage. With no money in her pocket, Hunken decides to ride her bike everywhere and stay in an anarchist punk squat. While there she learns to practice self defense to fight off the Nazis and meets such eccentric characters as a woman who discusses her third eye and an acquaintance of her grandfather’s who boasts about his resemblance to Gene Wilder. Hunken’s chameleon-like ability to slip into myriad personas allows her to fully embody and recreate the many eccentric people she encounters. Hunken’s adventures through Warsaw are intercut with flashbacks to her childhood and her memory of both her mother and her grandfather.
The work is most compelling when Hunken flashes back to the dark, painful memories of her childhood, revealing a sometimes abusive family life and a grandfather that hurt both her mother and her grandmother. However, Hunken glosses over these parts, only excavating enough dark terrain to hint at her family’s secrets. While surely these darker truths must have been painful for Hunken to reveal, they nonetheless make up the most touching aspects of the play. The script’s power (as well as the significance of Hunken’s trip) would have been stronger had she focused more stage time to her family’s saddening secrets rather than the comedic characters of Warsaw. (Although Hunken garners much laughter from her spot on impressions.) The many colorful characters Monica meets during her trip are sometimes integrated so quickly that the audience is left confused as to just who the next odd ball or ghost is. I hope Hunken’s next work will show her tackling the darker complexities of her family history, as she clearly has a treasure trove of evocative and touching material.
Overall, Hunken’s obvious talents both as a performer and as a writer make her able to frame even the most minor event as comedic, enabling her to create a thoroughly engaging solo work. Her extensive training in theater is apparent through her adeptness at physical comedy. Hunken has that rare gift of being able to construct an entire world upon a blank stage.
(The Wild Finish plays at ABC No Rio, 156 Rivington Street, through February 11, 2012. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 8pm and Saturdays at 9pm. Tickets are $10-$15 and are available at brownpapertickets.com and by calling 1.800.838.3006.)