‘Bad Panda’ at Iron Crow Theatre Company by Amanda Gunther

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As Fall rolls in it may be too chilly for a trip to the zoo, but you’ll have far more fun watching these animals in their ‘captivity’ as Iron Crow Theatre Company presents Bad Panda – a new play by Megan Gogerty.

Katie O. Solomon (Marion), Adam Cooley (Chester), and David Brasington (Gwo Gwo). Photo by Katie Ellen Simmons Barth.

Directed by Joseph Ritsch – Bad Panda is a unique and exciting adventure into the animal kingdom, using the troubled lives of two pandas in captivity as a lens through which to view much more complicated social struggles. Gwo Gwo and Marion are the last two pandas on earth. And in order to save the panda race they must repopulate. Only Gwo Gwo, the male panda, isn’t really all that into it. And once he meets Chest the crocodile his view on how things should be gets turned upside down. This performance presents a compelling look at the forces of nature and what is natural versus unnatural – and how desires are often stronger than society’s enforcement of right and wrong – or supposed to and not supposed to.

Costume Designer Rebecca Eastman keeps it simple. She crafts Pandas and Crocodiles out of every day clothes that mimics the patterns of their fur, skin, and scales. Eastman conceptualizes the notion of the animal rather than forcing big fuzzy or leathery costumes onto the actors. This approach creates the notion of animals without letting the audience lose sight of the humanity in their characters.

Director Joseph Ritsch manages to awaken the inner animal in the actors, letting their physicality speak for the mammal or reptile they are portraying rather than relying on heavy costumes and makeup to do so. Watching their performances; the pandas tumbling around the stage in a lackadaisical manner and the crocodile slinking about in his swamp, is a bit like standing outside the glass enclosure of the exhibit at the zoo only this time you get to hear their internal monologues; the dialogue and thoughts spoken aloud ripe with humor and strife.

The play cycles through dramatic shifts in relationships and intimacies; the way the characters relate to one another on their physical-animal level as well as a deeper emotional level is astounding. Playwright Megan Gogerty has captured the essence of struggle in self-identification – not only through gender and sexual preference roles – but in her approach to the societal expectations of the characters. The last male and female panda are expected to mate and want a baby to save their race. The crocodile is expected to be a loner figure who is fierce and predatory by nature. These expectations are exposed through Gogerty’s writing for what they are – ideas applied to the characters based on society’s beliefs. And a rich struggle ensues throughout the play as the characters grapple with living up to these expectations, even when their own personal feelings are the exact opposite of what’s going on.

Marion (Katie O. Solomon) the female panda undergoes drastic character development throughout the performance. Solomon starts out with an eager upbeat approach to having a baby, desperately wanting one. This desperation remains throughout the production, shifting from needy in regards to the baby, to forceful when she is determined to prove that she can do it on her own, to the edge of insanity once she gets what she wants only to discover its far from what she thought it would be. Solomon’s outbursts are hilarious and her character’s internal struggle, explicated aloud to the audience is captivating in a roundabout sort of way.

Adam Cooley (Chester) and David Brasington (Gwo Gwo). Photo by Katie Ellen Simmons Barth. Photo by Katie Ellen Simmons Barth.

Chester (Adam Cooley) as the rough-and-tough rumble tumble crocodile starts out as every bit the villain you’d expect to find in an apex predator. Cooley exposes raw animal magnetism, seducing Gwo Gwo with his words and physicality. There is a keen sense of a hardened exterior in Cooley’s performance that when it breaks down to reveal the quivering uncertainty of his insides- it’s truly remarkable. Undergoing a shift in character, much like Marion, Cooley’s croc shifts from mean and gator-like to rolly-polly and loveable quite quickly.

Gwo Gwo (David Brasington) becomes the king of the jungle in this sense as he is the first one to ultimately succeed in recognizing that his urges don’t have to match up to what is expected of him. Brasington’s character struggles the most with his sense of obligation and duty verses his feelings which are exactly the opposite. It’s a riveting performance as he has moments of utter chaotic breakdown this panda-poser defies the stereotypes of conformity and goes whole-bear to accept his natural desires and feelings.

No school field trip to the zoo was ever this entertaining or self-discovering and this show will touch your heart on a warm and fuzzy level as these characters strive to find happiness, love, acceptance, and normalcy in their wildly amusing lives.

Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission.

Bad Panda plays through October 27, 2012 at The Baltimore Theatre Project – 45 West Preston Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.