Saturday, September 18, 2021

"Animate" by Mixed Blood Theatre at the Como Zoo

photo by Rich Ryan
Earlier this year, Jack Reuler announced his retirement as Artistic Director of Mixed Blood Theatre, a company he founded in 1976. Mixed Blood has truly become a model of inclusivity, diversity, and accessibility in theater, amplifying often unheard voices on stage and off, and making sure everyone is able to be in the audience with its Radical Hospitality program. But before he retires, Jack is directing another incredible site-specific piece. The new play Animate, written by Ken LaZebnik, is an immersive ambulatory play at the Como Zoo that is, of course, about a zoo. Specifically about the ethics of zoos, accepting donations from wealthy people of questionable character, and "does the good of the many supersede the good of the individual," human or animal. It's an impressive logistical feat, features a ton of #TCTheater talent, and asks some big questions without providing easy answers. In fact, the audience is asked to provide their own answers to the big questions of the show. Unfortunately, the entire (free) run is sold out, but stay tuned in case more dates are added (click here for details).

Similar to 2017's Safe at Home performed in various locations around CHS Field, and 2019's Autonomy in the RiverCentre's Exhibit Hall filled with cars, Animate plays out in multiple short scenes around the Zoo. Upon check-in (at the entrance to the Visitor Center next to the Conservatory), audiences are divided into six groups, each with a guide. After the opening scene in the visitor center (after, yes, a real helicopter landing), each group takes off on a different path through the story, seeing the same six scenes (in and around various animal habitats) in different orders, and meeting up at the amphitheater for the conclusion some two hours later. There is limited seating in some of the locations, but be prepared to stand and walk throughout most of the show (or bring your own portable chair as some audience members did). And try not to gawk too long at the animals; it's not often scene transitions include actual live zebras, reindeer, and ostriches. Even more rare is an actor being upstaged by a giraffe, or a performing seal showing up right on cue.

The story centers around the opening of a new exhibit at the fictional Jackson Kennicott Zoo which will be a home to an extinct species of rhino, being brought back to life through the miracle of science. The controversy comes when the wealthy elderly benefactor, for whom the exhibit will be named, makes some racist remarks in an interview, and goes on an African safari in which a lion is killed. Should the Zoo return the money and cancel the exhibit, or accept the money and memorialize a racist? Two other dilemmas explored in the show are what to do with a giraffe that's old, unable to breed, and considered a "surplus animal," and whether or not a loving pair of gorillas should be split up to potentially help the survival of the species. I couldn't help but wonder if there couldn't be some compromise found between the two extremes for all three dilemmas, but we only have two hours. At the end of the play, after watching the story play out amongst multiple players, the audience (playing the role of the audience at the exhibit dedication ceremony) is asked to vote in a poll on their smart phone, with the majority vote determining the Zoo's decisions - a fun and clever way to engage the audience in the story.

The huge cast is chock full of local talent, including Regina Marie Williams as the conflicted director of the Zoo, Sally Wingert as the woman who worked so hard to secure funding for the exhibit, Bruce A. Young and Jevetta Steele as other Zoo employees (it was a little hard to keep track of who was doing what), Taj Ruler as a protester, Kate Fuglei and Stephen Yoakam as exes fighting to save the gorillas in different ways, Lipica Shah as the giraffe's caretaker passionately fighting for her survival, and Randy Reyes getting his steps in by running in and out of multiple scenes looking for the zookeeper (a delightful Kevin Kling) to deliver the semen of a pangolin (a kind of anteater) for an insemination that will save the species. And spoiler alert: the new version of The Wonder Years is not the only place you can hear Don Cheadle's voice this fall.

Staging a play mostly outdoors is a smart choice as theater begins its slow return out of a long extended intermission. And once again, Mixed Blood offers an engaging, entertaining, and immersive story asking relevant questions about the world around us, literally in this case. 

photo credit: @cherryandspoon Instagram