Animals Out of Paper by Rajiv Joseph, produced by Star Johnson and directed by Brandon Rashad Butts, is now playing at Silver Spring Stage, the perfect venue for this intimate drama which also provides a great deal of humor.The animals in the play are created in the art form of origami. As the artist folds and unfolds the animal or shape, so our lives are folded and folded many times as new shapes and forms come from blank paper (birth) or recreated from past configurations.
The focal point of the plot is Ilana, a highly regarded origami artist, writer and teacher. She is at a low point in her life, recently divorced, and dealing with the sudden disappearance of her faithful dog. Her studio apartment is filled with paper figures, old Chinese food takeout boxes, with papers and newspapers strewn all over.
Arriving on the scene is Andy, a calculus teacher but a student in Ilana’s origami class. We find out quickly he is smitten with Ilana, but he is also very quirky, keeping a written log of his blessings since he was 12 years-old. He also comes to get Ilana to agree to tutor one of his math students, Suresh, a brilliant senior in high school, whose mother recently died in an accident. Suresh is not only a genius at math but, it turns out, has an uncanny aptitude for folding paper. He is not totally atypical for his age, and is trying to be “cool” and accepted while dealing with his traditional South Asian culture.
Ilana takes Suresh on as a student and they have a complicated relationship. Andy is still in the picture. Ilana realizes he also is a multi-layered person, and she is offered a chance to go to a conference in Nagasaki and takes her student instead of her suitor. It is then that the plot thickens, and the characters confront their real feelings while their lives take new shapes.
Ilana is brilliantly played by Momo Nakamura. The decision to cast an Asian actress in the lead role, which was not done in the NYC and Chicago productions, contributed to to the meaning of the origami and, of course, to the trip to Nagasaki. Nakamura takes us into the soul of this artist who goes from depression to a new enlightenment.Ilana is not only this cool artist, but the actress has a reserve about her that allows us to believe Ilana’s folds hide a lot more inside her heart.
Rob Gorman plays Andy. He is the perfect nebbish, madly in love with Ilana, a caring teacher, but pushing the relationship with his teacher and student so fast that he leaves is own heart out there to get hurt.
Suresh is played by Utkarsh Rajawat. Rajawat portrays the sullen and brilliant teen with charm, but still allows us to see the vulnerable teen grieving the death of his mother, and being the caretaker of his father and siblings.
Director Brandon Rashad Butts allows his actors to glide around the stage and feel comfortable in the shape of their characters. According to his notes, they all worked hard to unfold the layers of the personalities of their three roles. Butts has created a world we know little about at the start but from which we come away with a deep understanding.
The set, designed by Shelton Hall and Paris Brown, is filled with literally hundreds of origami animals, hanging from the ceiling, sitting on many shelves on the walls and decorating the floor. The designers recreate an artist’s studio apartment with a large sliding metal door and high ceiling. One wall has a projection screen and different images are shown throughout.
There is a grouping of human hearts, including one that beats, symbolic of the feelings on stage and an origami replica that Ilana has been commissioned by cardiac surgeons to make out of paper. We are also shown videos of the actors in character in various locations. Sometimes these projections worked to create mood, like one of the koi pond, but other times they were a bit distracting. I also found the close to a hundred small figures hanging down between the stage lights a little disconcerting at times. However, I was fascinated by all the tiny figures.
Mika Eubanks’ costumes helped present the traits of the characters, especially Suresh in his hip-hop style clothing and Ilana who goes from pajamas and a robe to a tailored skirt and blouse with business-like pumps.
Animals Out of Paper is a perfect demonstration of Silver Spring Stage’s successful reputation of producing lesser well-known works and performing them so well in their intimate venue. This play folds perfectly into this environment, so I urge all of you to to see Animals out of Paper, because it might put a new wrinkle into your ideas about life and art.
Running Time: Two hours and 15-minutes, with an intermission.