When a leading Shakespearean actor changes hats—literally—to play a neurotic housewife whose comic riffs include a paean to a ballpoint pen, that’s news.
And it’s very good news indeed for theater-lovers lucky enough to catch Kate Eastwood Norris–last seen as Mary Stuart, the arrogant and foolhardy Queen of Scots, at The Folger last season—in this superb production of Animal, now making its world premiere at The Studio Theatre as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
Norris, who plays Rachel, the 43-year-old Londoner who appears to be having a nervous breakdown, comes to comedy quite naturally. Her gender-bending roles in Richard III and Hamlet both involved a mastery of dark humor, which, in Shakespeare, is often the prelude to tragedy.
In Animal, her performance spins from the flip rejection of all the other characters—including her husband, her therapist, her burglar, the deranged older woman who lives in her house and the little girl who sits, like a cipher, in the therapist’s chair—to a literally quaking fountain of terror. Her fear is palpable. She cowers like a frightened animal, yet remarks that animals “don’t show contrition.”
Sparring with Norris, the rest of this brilliant ensemble circles around her, trying to find some way to rescue her from what she herself calls “Armageddon.”
Rachel’s husband, Tom, is portrayed with a wonderful mixture of tenderness, frustration and rage by Cody Nickell, who—off stage and on—is married to Norris and has played opposite her at both the Folger and Woolley Mammoth.
Stephen, the therapist, who is played by Joel David Santner, starts off as an earnest young doctor. Fresh out of school, he tries to ignore the mockery of his clever patient. He gradually evolves into a mature doctor trying to do everything he can to help her.
In fact, it is Stephen’s effort to have her draw smiley faces—and then put her on medication—that sparks the pen diatribe. Rachel’s litany of the ways in which drug companies work, sometimes just putting their names on pens, is hilarious.
Dan, the burglar who breaks into Rachel’s house and steals a kiss (but no more), prances in and out of the action. He is a lock-picking Puck, roguishly played by Michael Kevin Darnall.
Like Dan, the Old Woman, played by Rosemary Regan, weaves in and out of Rachel’s life. A helpless burden, she drools while clamoring for love and liquid refreshment.
Anais Killian is the perfectly-drawn little girl whose role in the play is a mystery, yet she is at the heart of it all.
British playwright Clare Lizzimore knew she would be making theatre history when she was commissioned to write a play for the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. An Olivier Award-winning director whose plays have been produced in London, Glasgow, and New York, she was approached by David Muse, Studio’s Artistic Director since 2009, and immediately said, ‘Yes.’
Muse describes the play as a “domestic drama, full of twists and humor.”
Humor is a key component of Animal, thanks to Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Upchurch understands the audience’s need for entertainment, even in the darkest of plays. One of New York’s leading women directors, she is known for her ability to work with other women artists, and to wrench laughter or gasps from the simplest gestures.
The set, designed by Rachel Hauck, is stark. There are two chairs on a bare stage in a black box theater-in-the-round. The chairs are part of the therapist’s office and the house where Rachel and Tom live. A table appears, turning the home into a restaurant, while a wheelchair is pushed back and forth, bringing its occupant into sight.
The change of scenes is seamless, aided by lights that focus the action in one corner or another. In one of the most striking scene changes, Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky startles us with a cascading stream of Christmas lights, dug up from the attic. Sound Designer Daniel Kluger adds a cackling sound—similar to firecrackers exploding—as both elements transform the dreary residence into a fairyland café.
Costumes, designed by Kathleen Geldard, tell us volumes about who the characters are. Tom rushes in and out in his executive suit and briefcase, the burglar in jeans is a raffish hippie, the doctor looks like the newly-minted MD he is. Rachel wraps herself in an old sweater and buries her head in a large knit hat. The old lady drips tomato soup on her clothes, which subsequently appear to be stained in blood.
Most remarkably, the little girl, with her Alice headband and pinafore dress, is a metaphor for a child in a world turned upside-down.
Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Rachel encounters a cast of characters who are larger than life, wildly funny or absurdly serious, yet always terrifying in their ability to control her.
Whether this a feminist parable—a fable about woman’s lot in life—or something entirely different, is up to each theater-goer to decide.
Magic Time!: The Women’s Voices Theater Festival: ‘Animal’ at The Studio Theatre (Review #1) by John Stoltenberg on DCMetroTheaterArts.