Fuse Theater Review: “M” and the Torment of Artistic Freedom

But if a dramatist slaughters everything—what will can be put in its place? In the case of “M” it is nothing; nothing I can see or understand.

Ryan Landry’s “M”. Directed by Caitlin Lowans. Featuring Ellen Adair, Eva Jean Chapuran alternating with Ava Ross Cooke, Larry Coen, David Drake, Laura Latreille, Karen MacDonald, Paul Melendy, and Samantha Richert. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company. At the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through April 27.

Karen MacDonald looking sinister in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of RYAN LANDRY’S “M”. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

By Peter Adrian-Cohen.

The Huntington Theatre Company has done the brave thing. For Ryan Landry, it has put all its artistic eggs in one basket.

Now if there is an actor/playwright who has earned this freedom, it’s Ryan Landry. His plays, his entire career have been about taking risks. His is a strong reputation as gender-bender and convention slayer. Always he has walked straight through the looking glass; if you want to see what he found on the other side—go see “M”.

The “M” in the Huntington’s production stands for Mörder—German for murder. It’s taken from the classic German film by Fritz Lang released in 1931.The film is about a middle-aged man who stalks little girls. Gruesome and and, in an odd way, idealistic, the film mirrors the final days of the Weimar Republic. A rigid, militaristic bureaucracy oppresses the poor and the impoverished remnant of the middle class. In the unforgettable final scene, the compulsive, incorrigible “M” is revealed as the ultimate sufferer of his own obsession. The film echoes profound hope and humanism in the most profound sense of the word—we’re in Germany in the final moments before it is all trampled by Nazi stormtroops.

Now why did Ryan Landry chose this film? “I said to myself,” says he, “‘how do you take something like M and wedge a completely opposite story into it?’ To me the … opposite of ‘M’ would be a romantic comedy. And so that is what I did. That was the challenge I set for myself.”

Driving a wedge? To do what? And the “opposite” of “M” a romantic comedy? The opposite of a horrifying obsession?

And so Landry drives his wedge. And, to make sure there are no misunderstandings, he signals in the early scenes that it is all meant to be a comedy.

Now I too firmly believe that the arts, theater included, are the last place where things have to be logical. They can be psycho-logical. They can be logical in a thousand illogical ways. And yet, no matter how I look at it, I do not see a purpose in what Landry is doing. Other than a childlike curiosity to see what happens if he actually goes through with it. What if he actually goes ahead and does it?

And so the wedge gets driven deeper. And there is a lot of laughter in the house. But a strange laughter it is. Now, true, there are a million kinds of laughter. For example the joyous laughter of seeing ourselves unmasked by the mirror of truth. Or the laughter of glee that, thank God, this is all happening not to us but to the poor bastards up on stage. Or the laughter at watching human kind insist earnestly on its mistakes. And then there is the kind of laughter I am talking about here, in “M.” Too loud, too demonstrative. With a bitter edge. Laughing out loud these laughers seem to say that by showing that which should not be shown, by naming that which should not be named—we can somehow exorcise the uncontrollable forces in all of us.

This is the only sense I can make of this laughter: That it is the nervous laughter of thinking that we can exorcise that which we can’t help—and worse—that which we are aware of not being able to help. By making “M,” making the murdered children the object of gags and jokes, we liberate ourselves from the horrible reality of “M”‘s compulsion. But the longer the evening lasted, the more this sort of laughter made me very uncomfortable.

And then there is another, equally profound, issue raised by this production. It has to do with artistic freedom. It’s about giving someone, Ryan Landry in this case, almost unlimited artistic freedom. Is that good? I see the result and ask myself, would it not have been Peter DuBois duty to intervene? After all he is the theater’s artistic director? Would it not have been the duty of the director of the play, Caitlin Lowans, to speak up?

Evidently, nobody said anything. Or if they did, Landry and his co-creators did not listen. And thus the utterly free playwright is free to wield a chainsaw with which he kills every theater convention in sight. As I said, there is nothing wrong with that; in fact it is the prerogative of theater-artists like Ryan Landry. But if you slaughter everything, what will you put in its place? In the case of “M,” it is nothing: nothing I can see or understand. Predictably the play collapses at the end. Hard as playwright and director try to end the evening, there is no way they can; because to end it, they would have had to have had a clear beginning.

Ellen Adair and Paul Melendy in the HTC’s production of RYAN LANDRY’S “M.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson

For both, its excesses and its failings, this is a production absolutely worth while seeing.

Not to forget, for this evening Landry and his team have created an imaginative, entertainingly functional set (Jon Savage, scenic designer). And numerous moments of strong acting: The opening moments with Herr Direktor” played by David Drake. Or Karen MacDonald’s moving recreation of the final moments of M. And not to forget the cameos delivered by Larry Coen.

Too much artistic freedom is a temptation like any other; and as this evening shows, not even a strong artist like Ryan Landry can stand up to it.


  1. Ray Maynard on April 12, 2013 at 9:03 am

    Thank you for this!! I saw an early version of the production, and felt mildly ill, and also subsequently bewildered by positive reviews. It played more like an intellectual exercise than a theatre piece, a piece of art so ugly it becomes an object for contemplation and not enjoyment. Landry is a charming bon vivant, and we all want him to succeed, but I too wish someone had reined this show in.

  2. Jean Gibran on April 27, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    Four friends characterized M as “awful.” I too could not see humor in the lewd portrayal of the Weimar Republic’s aftermath & its innocent victims. But then I’m still reeling from the dehumanizing portrait of Uganda as recently portrayed in The Book of the Mormon. Finally, I get it. Be provocative. Insist that the audience snicker at the crude characterization of despicable regimes & giggling viewers will applaud. I did not applaud Landry’s M nor did I stand for the puerile Book of the Mormon. Let generation X laugh. I won’t. Perhaps the Huntington will get the message when subscriptions decrease.

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