Wednesday, August 10, 2016

From the Benign to the Malevolent

Anyone who has been on Facebook for some time has become accustomed to pictures and videos of animals appearing in their timeline. Whether posted by friends or shared by friends of friends of friends, these can become a source of annoyance to some, inspiration to others, or merely bring a smile to one's face. Some show animals at play:

Other videos capture animals interacting on extremely intimate levels.

Plenty of art inspired by animals can be found online (such as these two views of a hippo table designed by Derek Pearce).

Whether one's attention is caught by a photo of a butterfly or a drawing of a shoebill (a bird which not only eats monitor lizards, catfish, and baby crocodiles, but shits all over its own legs in order to cool off), the amazing biodiversity of life on planet Earth never fails to astound observers. In some ways, the colors of nature are splendid enough to blind one to a curious piece of etymology (courtesy of
  • The word "animal" is defined as "any member of the kingdom Animalia, comprising multicellular organisms that have a well-defined shape and usually limited growth, can move voluntarily, actively acquire food and digest it internally, and have sensory and nervous systems that allow them to respond rapidly to stimuli: some classification schemes also include protozoa and certain other single-celled eukaryotes that have motility and animal-like nutritional modes."
  • The word "anima" is sometimes defined as the soul or "inner personality that is turned toward the unconscious of the individual."
  • The word "animus" is often defined as "a strong dislike or enmity; hostile attitude; animosity."
Animals depicted in onstage narratives can range from the whimsical to the fantastical:

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A new documentary by Katharina Waisburd that was screened at the 2016 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Holy Zoo offers a behind-the-scenes look at life in the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. It's a peaceful place where the staff includes Jews and Muslims who have become such close friends that they can tease each other about the size of their noses. Visiting groups of Jewish and Muslim children are guided around the facility with references to the Hebrew Bible's description of animals on Noah's Ark.

A group of Jewish children passes by the Visitor's Center
that resembles Noah's Ark in a scene from Holy Zoo

One zoo guide is seen explaining how the Pharaoh told the ancient Egyptians to throw the Jewish boys in the Nile but, because the Almighty One intervened, none of the boys were eaten by crocodiles. Zookeepers are seen skinning rabbits and grinding up their meat for the animals, feeding a hungry lion, and humoring a lemur who has escaped from its enclosure and prefers to eat food pellets from a bucket being carried by one of the zoo's staff.

Karmi the rhinoceros in a scene from Holy Zoo

The zookeepers take turns trying to care for a pair of male rhinos. One was named Shalom because he was born on March 26, 1979 (the day that the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed). The more skittish rhino, Karmi, can be seen sticking his horn through the bars of his cage, but quickly flinching and retreating whenever someone tries to clean his eyes. Although the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo requires certain standard zookeeping operations (implanting a microchip in the neck of a sedated deer, giving an elephant a pedicure), some procedures make it a very different zoological facility.

Poster art for Holy Zoo

Most of the food for the animals is subsidized by an ancient tradition of tithing part of each farmer's crops to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the zookeepers still have to purchase extra food for the weekends. The zoo keeps a kosher (but not certified) kitchen because, although the animals cannot pray before they eat, technically they belong to a Jewish priest. As a result, they are not fed any pork products. Nor do they eat bread on Passover.

Whereas gazelles used to roam freely in the land surrounding the zoo, in recent years a steady encroachment by humans building residential developments has overtaken their habitat. No gazelles come to graze anymore. When asked what other animal they might like to be, one of the Arab zookeepers chooses either a bird or a fish (because of its freedom). Chaim, the Jewish zookeeper, points out that birds can be shot by humans and asks his friend how he would feel if he were a fish that was forced to live in an aquarium. Chaim would much prefer to be an elephant, because that's the only animal with the capacity to mourn.

Chaim and Gilad discuss life as they sit outside the giraffe compound

Whether philosophizing about the ongoing tensions in the Middle East while eating in the zoo staff's kitchen or teasing each other about being on their best behavior because they're being filmed, the Israeli and Palestinian zookeepers readily acknowledge the craziness that exists outside of the zoo while keeping their work environment relatively peaceful. Meanwhile, the older, potbellied Hyam (who takes a daily walk around the zoo) tells the filmmaker "When you think about how people in the world are always fighting, the zoo isn't a political place. Monkeys have no discussions."

Two zookeepers give an elephant a pedicure in Holy Zoo

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Before discussing Steve Yockey’s new thriller entitled The Thrush and the Woodpecker: A Revenge Play, it should be noted that numerous Bay Area theatres have benefited from participating in the National New Play Network’s flagship initiative, its Rolling World Premiere program. They include:

Since its founding, NNPN has championed the Rolling World Premieres of over 50 new plays with more than $1 million in support funding. The program allows a playwright to  develop a new work with multiple creative teams in at least three different communities within a 12-month period (during which the playwright is part of the process, working on the script and making adjustments based on what is learned from each production).

NNPN gives $7,500 to each participating theater (or a total of $22,500 to projects that include more than three partners). Approved projects are also eligible to apply for collaboration funds which allow the partnerships additional time and resources to work together on an element or specific need of the play that might not otherwise be afforded by the budgetary or time restraints of the participating theaters.

Plays that have completed their Rolling World Premieres have received more than 500 subsequent productions and hundreds of citations in their local markets, been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and have won the Steinberg/ATCA, Stavis, Pen Center, and Blackburn Awards.

The Custom Made Theatre’s thrilling production of Yockey's new play is, perhaps, most notable for its economy. Although The Thrush and the Woodpecker requires only three actors, a unit set, and runs for only 75 minutes, it packs quite a wallop. That's partially because Yockey has become increasingly adept at weaving suspense and magical realism into his scripts. At one point prior to the play's big reveal, as a character began to undergo a startling transformation in body language and temperament, I was reminded of the hapless Trina (one of my favorite characters from MADtv, who was portrayed by the gifted Mo Collins).

As Yockey's play begins, the audience is introduced to Brenda Hendricks (Stacy Ross) as she nurses a cup of coffee and looks out on the scenery surrounding her home in the woods of Northern California. Brenda has moved around frequently, often choosing places that are fairly isolated. The fact that her husband is currently away on business is a good thing (although Brenda is a volunteer at the local library, she prefers to spend the bulk of her time alone).

Adam Magill (Noah Hendricks) and Stacy Ross (Brenda) in a scene
from The Thrush and the Woodpecker (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Soon enough she is joined by her sleepy son, recently arrived from Boston after getting kicked out of a prestigious university for committing some highly idealistic and politically correct acts of environmental vandalism during his senior year. His simple request -- "Is there any coffee?" -- is met with the kind of mental sparring one might anticipate in a police interrogation room if the lead detective was your mother. Prone to overthinking anything and everything, and like a spider toying with its prey, Brenda has become an expert at playing good cop/bad cop with whoever happens to be in her company. If, for some reason, she is alone, she can still win the game.

Adam Magill (Noah Hendricks) and Stacy Ross (Brenda) in a scene
from The Thrush and the Woodpecker (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Having been raised by this intellectual version of Scylla and Charybdis, Noah (Adam Magill) understands that hell may freeze over before he gets a cup of coffee from his mother who, when he whines that he doesn't even have money to pay for groceries, replies "Use your tuition!" Noah also wants to know what caused the strange banging sound that woke him up, as if someone was hammering a nail into the side of their home.

Soon after Brenda leaves to run an errand, there is a knock at the front door. It's a woman Noah has never seen before, someone who claims to be an old friend of his mother's. Roisin Danner (Fontana Butterfield) manages to elicit an impressive amount of information from the groggy young man without revealing much about herself or her motives. Although she does tell Noah a strange tale about a woman who found a wounded bird in her driveway and nursed it back to health -- and responds well to his hospitality -- she remains a woman of mystery. But not for long.

Fontana Butterfield (Roisin Danner) and Adam Magill (Noah 
Hendricks) in a scene from The Thrush and the Woodpecker
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Because he's so obsessed with the environmental damage caused by light pollution, Noah may know that a group of baboons is called a congress. But has he ever heard of a mutation of thrushes? Or a descent of woodpeckers? It doesn't take long before Yockey unleashes the crazy, leading to a rip-roaring battle between Roisin and Brenda, who returns from town to find Roisin "all fired up and ready to go." (Thanks, Obama!)

Beautifully directed by Tracy Ward, Custom Made Theatre's production features Stacy Ross (a perfect fit for a maternal control freak) with Adam Magill bringing an appealing sense of youth and innocence to his portrayal of Noah. It would be a severe understatement to say that Fontana Butterfield wipes up the floor as the crazed Roison, but one can't really blame her.

Fontana Butterfield appears as Roisin Danner in
The Thrush and the Woodpecker (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Custom Made's Rolling World Premiere production features a unit set designed by Dan Bilodeau, some arresting animation by David Goodwin, and ferocious sound design by Liz Ryder. If you're not going to Burning Man but were thrilled by Rodan as a child, Yockey's sleek one-act play offers a much more sinister way to commune with nature. Performances of The Thrush and the Woodpecker continue at the Custom Made Theatre through August 27th (click here for tickets).

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