Monday, October 15, 2018

What's New At The Zoo?

It's no secret that we're living in troubled times. Catastrophic storms are causing chaos all over the globe. The Indonesian island of Sulawesi got hit by a 7.5 earthquake followed by a tsunami just a few days before one of its volcanoes, Mount Soputan, erupted. While wildfires and fire tornadoes destroy thousands of acres, mankind's worst political instincts and most dysfunctional forms of behavior continue to fester, seethe, and repulse people with their selfishness, cruelty, and shortsightedness.

In times when fear and madness seem to be tearing our society apart, I find solace in taking frequent naps and occasionally watching animal videos. Whether witnessing giraffes and camels giving birth, baby elephants scampering about, or a playful litter of lion cubs, nature provides an uplifting reminder that the circle of life continues regardless of what's being broadcast on cable news networks. Even watching a video of people cutting open a dead pregnant shark in order to deliver three shark pups and release them into the ocean gives one hope for a brighter future.

As Alice exclaimed during her visit to Wonderland, the similarities between animals and humans just keep getting "curiouser and curiouser." Wikipedia defines anthropomorphism as:
“...the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology. Personification is the related attribution of human form and characteristics to abstract concepts such as nations, emotions, and natural forces, such as seasons and weather. Both have ancient roots as storytelling and artistic devices, and most cultures have traditional fables with anthropomorphized animals as characters. People have also routinely attributed human emotions and behavioral traits to wild as well as domesticated animals.”

Songwriters don't require animated feature films to have fun with animal references. Consider these two long-lost gems (one from Barbra Streisand's first television special and the other from 1960's Do Re Mi (music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green).

Long before zoological societies started to design exhibition spaces that resembled the natural habitats of their animals, children visiting the zoo were best entertained by sea lions and monkeys. Although apes were often stuck in depressing cages, there was no escaping the fact that their bodies and behavior bore a strong resemblance to their human captors.

Many children loved to jump up and down as they scratched their armpits and mimicked the sounds of chimpanzees but, on March 25, 1960, when Rod Serling aired the 25th episode of The Twilight Zone (People Are Alike All Over), things got a little too creepy for television viewers. Although some had probably visited a zoo and wondered what the animals in captivity were thinking as humans ogled them from behind a railing, Serling's ominous introduction did little to prepare them for the episode's surprise ending:
"You're looking at a species of flimsy little two-legged animal with extremely small heads, whose name is Man. Warren Marcusson, age 35. Samuel A. Conrad, age 31. They're taking a highway into space, Man unshackling himself and sending his tiny, groping fingers up into the unknown. Their destination is Mars, and in just a moment we'll land there with them."

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The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of Fairview (a provocative new play by Jackie Sibblies Drury) as part of a co-production with New York's SoHo Repertory Theatre. As directed by Sarah Benson, the action takes place in an upscale suburban home inhabited by an African American family getting ready to celebrate Grandma's birthday.

Natalie Venetia Belcon (Beverly) and Chantal Jean-Pierre (Jasmine)
in a scene from Fairview (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

As the play began, I found myself marveling at Mimi Lien's handsome unit set, which deserves top honors for "best sunken living room in a contemporary drama." After the first extended sequence, Drury's dramedy reboots with the cast repeating the same physical actions they previously performed, but with a soundtrack broadcasting people's inner thoughts to the audience. By the time the youngest family member, Keisha (Monique A. Robinson), climbs onto the low wall bordering the set to address the audience, it's obvious that a different dynamic is about to take over. That was the moment when I flashed on Rod Serling's People Are Alike All Over.

Although this production makes extensive use of strobe lighting at a critical moment in Drury's drama, I did not see any warning signs upon entering the theatre (or in the program). While I'm personally not at risk of suffering a seizure, I was not the only person who found the extended strobe effect painful enough that I had to cover my eyes until the gratuitous use of this gimmick had run its course. Since it's hard to break the fourth wall in an auditorium with a thrust stage, let me assure readers that, as the audience became involved in the action, no one came to harm.

Fairview is an especially timely piece of theatre when one considers all the recent stories about white people (who acquired nicknames like “BBQ Becky, “Cornerstore Caroline,” and “Permit Patty”) who have taken it upon themselves to call the police about black people who are simply going about their lives. As director Sarah Benson explains:
“The play is colliding with the American family drama, which is historically White. It’s repopulating that with an upper-middle-class Black family. It’s looking at how Black people are watched and how their behavior is interpreted all the time. It takes the hypervisibility that people of color are subjected to on a daily basis and puts it in a theatrical form. The entire conceit of the space is that you’re set up to watch people.”
I came away from the show with a very different reaction than what the playwright intended. Much has been written about how Fairview deals with the difficulties of being African American in a society dominated by white people. However, from a purely mechanical perspective, the play's structure could just as easily be used to rattle the cages of audience members in order to let them feel what it is like for atheists, LGBT people, women, Asian Americans, and other minority groups to stand up for themselves.

Charles Browning (Dayton) and Natalie Venetia Belcon (Beverly)
in a scene from Fairview (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The key to solving the puzzle is delivered by Keisha who, as a teenager, is trying to get a better grip on who she is and what she wants to do with her life. Unfortunately, there is so much drama and noise coming from the other members of her family that, when one of them asks her what she needs, Keisha responds "I need for you to go away." It's a critical moment of confrontation between two generations which, ironically, was demonstrated far more effectively when two female protesters recently cornered a government official in an elevator and, as they tried to plead their case, one woman demanded that Senator Jeff Flake "Look at me when I'm talking to you!"

Monique A. Robinson as Keisha in Fairview (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

With costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, and lighting by Amith ChandrashakerRaja Feather Kelly has choreographed the play's more exuberant moments along with fight direction by J. David Brimmer. Luke Robertson delivers a major surprise as Beverly and Dayton's overly energetic son, Jimbo, with Jed Resnick appearing as Keisha's gender-nonconforming, free-spirited friend, Mack. Other surprises come from Brooke Bloom as Suze and Natalia Payne as Bets.

As the determined hostess, Natalie Venetia Belcon does a solid job of portraying Beverly as a woman whose perfectionist tendencies may be her undoing (especially when egged on by Chantal Jean-Pierre's juicy characterization of Jasmine, Beverly's narcissistic sister who is always spoiling for a catfight). Charles Browning portrays Beverly's husband, Dayton, whose mischievous ways of demonstrating his love for his wife show how the mere arrival of root vegetables can satisfy some women.

Chantal Jean-Pierre as Jasmine in Fairview (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Performances of Fairview continue at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through November 4 (click here for tickets).