Suzanne Andrade’s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is, as Monty Python once explained, something completely different. It’s not really a play, although it tells a story. It’s not really a musical, although it has music in it. And it’s not really animation or film, even though both elements are crucial to its success. Nonetheless, it ends up being quite successful at what it does.
Written by director Andrade, and aided and abetted by Paul Barritt’s bizarre yet effective film and animation backdrops, Animals is a cautionary tale about life in an urban slum. Barritt’s exotic efforts create not only a stage for the performance but become a key part of its dark, mysterious underside. Andrade’s and Barritt’s slum, in this case is “the Bayou,” a massive, terminally run-down tenement building that houses a bleak, seemingly endless array of down-and-outers and no-accounts.
The Bayou is the isolated, nasty part of “The City,” a gleaming modern wonderland populated by fine, wealthy, perfect people who’d rather not even imagine encountering the City’s underside. As we enter this underworld, we soon meet a variety of characters, ranging from a crusty, amoral pawnbroker and her bristling, Marxist-oriented young daughter; a naïve do-gooder and her own all-too-innocent daughter; a spooky musician; the City’s mayor and his minions; and the mysterious “caretaker” who may or may not be a good guy.
The Bayou is overrun by a gang of predatory young urchins who make life there more unbearable than it already is. They’re dragooned into a shadowy proletarian army and whipped into revolutionary shape by the pawnbroker’s daughter, and soon launch an attack on the City’s better side, enraging the mayor and his pals. The mayor’s ultimate solution to this effrontery leads to the young socialistas’ startling but unsought metamorphosis into a cadre that’s a bit more manageable.
If all this sounds a little esoteric, it is … if only a bit. Animals is assembled like a dark fairy tale, something that blends the gloomy (or gloomier) side of the Grimm brothers with puckish touches of “Wallace and Gromit” with a hat tip to Edward Gorey. To the story’s odd atmospherics are added Barritt’s animated and filmed backgrounds. Their design hearkens back to Russian constructivism, and influences also include the enigmatic animation styles of both the brothers Quay and Python’s Terry Gilliam.
It’s this ever-changing, ever moving background that makes this show distinctive, a hallmark of the work of Andrade and Barritt, the key movers, along with their associates, of their UK-based creative team that’s collectively known as “1927.”
When the Bayou is described as infested with insects, you quickly get the idea. The interior and exterior walls bristle constantly with scurrying cockroaches and shimmying silverfish. As the story unfolds, the backgrounds pulsate with shadowy, animated, often very funny humans and life forms, with gangs of shadowy kids dashing about, elevators going up and down, and scenes whirling about in a dizzying succession of surreal, occasionally Dadaist images. The effect is contemporary and very retro at the same time.
Ingeniously inserted into the screens upon which these continuous films and animations are projected are three windows from which the three live characters, in various costumes and guises, emerge, retreat, and emerge again. All the characters are portrayed by Andrade, Esme Appleton, and Lillian Henley, with the Caretaker’s voiceover being supplied by an unseen James Addie.
Costume changes are startlingly quick and efficient. Acting is highly stylized, positioned somewhere between commedia dell’arte and mime with a bit of busking thrown in just for fun. And the music, composed and primarily performed by Lillian Henley, is repetitive and/or minimalist in the manner of the early Philip Glass. It is occasionally monotonous, but proves effective in the end.
Taken in its entirety, Animals becomes a parable for our times where the wealthy hold sway over everyone else and where even the young Marxist revolutionaries prove far too inept to mount an effective counteroffensive. They vastly underestimate the irresistible nature of the power arrayed against them, transforming the action, in a way, into 1984 in reverse.
All this having been said, Animals is far from a simple yet amusing slice of agitprop. It’s really a satirical lament on the endless failure do-loop that’s a hallmark of the recessionary morass that characterizes current Western civilization. But it’s administered with plenty of British-style dry humor and wit. It’s surprisingly light and airy in spite of its rather depressing but prophetic message.
Animals is engaging, fast-paced, and energetic, and its three madcap performers exhibit loads of skill, nuance, and stamina. Our only complaint during Sunday night’s opening performance was that the actors and/or their microphones underestimated their performance space, speaking, with some frequency, so quietly that a number of dialogue bits were lost as the audience strained to hear them. This can be easily remedied, and hopefully, the cast will do so by the time you see this unusual, distinctive, and highly original work.
The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets runs thru July 1, 2012 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW Washington, DC
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets.
Written by Suzanne Andrade. Created by 1927.
Directed by Suzanne Andrade
Music by Lillian Henley
Film, animation, design by Paul Barritt
Presented by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes with no intermission
- Liz Maestri . PinklineProject
- April Forrer . MDTheatreGuide
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David Cannon . mocovox
Rachel Eisley . BrightestYoungThings
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Genie Baskir . ShowBizRadio
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Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian