For a play about a hippo, it’s pretty dark. Forgive Us, Gustavito! is bookended by the primal howling of a grieving animal, as the audience is enveloped in a blackout. This is not to say, however, that this production by Otherland Theatre Ensemble, currently playing at the Charm City Fringe Festival in Baltimore, doesn’t have a profound sense of humor. Many audience members, including myself, seemed to have a bit of a permanent smile for the duration of the show, as even the more serious beats brought a sense of collective delight.
This satisfyingly physical production falls into the category of absurdist theater, but it manages to do so while maintaining the structure of a finely crafted noir thriller – and that dichotomy is what produces some of the more successful aspects of the production. Forgive Us, Gustavito! tells the story of a grizzled hippo detective investigating the untimely death of his saintly zoo-bound hippo brother. However, even with a surrounding cast of spider monkeys, gorillas, and other animals, Forgive Us, Gustavito! is a maelstrom of human emotion, landing upon hard truths about life, death, manipulative relationships, and the neglect of family ties. The show even touches on themes found in modern Sci-Fi productions.
Devised by Rebecca Finney, Lucius Robinson, and Tushar Mathew, who studied with Dell’Arte International, Forgive Us, Gustavito! has many gifts to give. Rebecca Finney shines as Elvira, an overdramatic spider monkey who serves as the show’s femme fatale. It’s not easy to scamper across a stage on all fours while looking glamorous, but it suits her. Tushar Mathew is lovably intense as Detective Emilio Hippo, whose guilt-driven monologues provide much of the emotional heft of the piece. Lucius Robinson is a powerful presence as Toto, a “civilized” gorilla who wears a tie and drinks hand-pressed coffee, and he is genuinely creepy as Mr. D, a shadowy figure who connects all the characters…and knows all their dark secrets.
The actors rely on voice and physicality to establish their characters as animals – there are no makeup tricks or rubber appendages. Costumes are appropriate for the genre – Elvira is adorned with a sheer white top and pleated chiffon pants that the light shines through beautifully, giving her the appearance of a sentient French marionette, and Detective Hippo is dressed in a trench coat and fedora, complete with padded stomach. The soundtrack is well chosen, and includes a few perfectly slow saxophone solos. The set is sparse – just one chair, one desk, and a couple of light poles with clamped-on bulbs.
This leads me to one of the more brilliant aspects of the piece – the lighting – which is more of a team effort, led by Sam Robinson. Along with a few bare bulbs and can lights perched in various places, the lighting is provided by the performers via flashlights and hand-held fixtures. There is spotlighting, backlighting, under lighting, even interrogation lighting, all in the actors’ hands, and sometimes dangerously close to burning their faces – which makes it all the more exciting.
Forgive Us, Gustavito! is artistic, but it is truly accessible. I might even be able to see older children enjoying it. Much of its playfulness comes from humanizing the animal characters in unique ways. As they recount memories and read snippets of old postcards, adorable details about Gustavito and his friends and family are revealed – drawing the audience in emotionally, even as more ridiculous characters and situations are introduced. It’s hard to add more detail about the plot without adding too much…so the best thing to do is let you unravel the mystery for yourself. This thoughtful and hilarious show will be well worth the trip to Charm City.
Forgive Us, Gustavito!, presented by Otherland Theatre Ensemble, plays through November 11th, 2018, at Maryland Art Place (MAP) Underground – 218 W Saratoga Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, go online.