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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
How can you make science stageworthy so that the audience is enlightened and entertained? This year's commissioned playwright, David Zellnik, opted to take the cliche about monkey see, monkey do and harness it to a study in the area called Serendib in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka where scientists have been studying the behavior of toque macques or wild monkeys in a protected habitat for thirty years. For the fun and entertainment factor he decided to show the monkey watchers own behavior aping (excuse the pun) their subjects.
To ramp up the comic potential the playwright added a pair of Cockney film makers who arrive at the researchers' camp to film the monkeys and their watchers for what they hope will become a frequently replayed PBS special. Uncertain whether the monkeys and the scientists now in residents will make for an interesting enough story, they've arranged for the senior team member's chief rival and belittler to come to Sri Lanka to be in the film. The result: a triple-layered affair to point to the parallels between the struggle for influence and dominance by both humans and animals. A science farce, if you will.
Unlike the film makers who could capture the far from New York monkeyshines with their camera, Zellnik realized that he could not bring real live monkeys on stage. His solution: puppet monkeys. As designed by Emily DeCola to be wrapped around the actors's arms and virtually becoming part of them, the scenes when the actors switch from their human roles and manipulate DeCola's incredibly individualized monkeys are terrific.
The staging reflects the synergy between director Carlos Armesto and DeCola. The clever and quite complex revolving set by Ryan Elliot Kravetz and Evan Purcell's lighting and Graham Johnson's sound design are marvelously atmospheric. The actors are all excellent , especially Nitya Vidyasagar as Anna, the attractive local scientist who sets off the international alpha-male conflict, and James Rana, as the team's least influential member. Even though none are experienced puppeteers, they deftly segue between their human and anthromorphized, personality matching roles.
Unfortunately the playwright has thrown a monkey wrench (oops, another unstoppable pun) into his theatrical marriage of monkey and human business. He establishes the parallels between human and animal behavior well enough for us to get it almost immediately. However, he doesn't seem to trust our intelligence but seems intent on finding as many ways as possible to reiterate what's already patently transparent. The obviousness of the scenes in which the scientists, like their monkey counterparts, compete for professional dominance as well as Anna's sexual favors at times feel more like a skit than a play. Unfortunately this makes the scientists and their studies less interesting than those show stealers —Noc, Jasantha, Ramsov and the lovely Shivani.
For an annotated list of other science-related plays we've reviewed go here.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide