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Available Light’s Paradise Park Zoo is a Dazzling Cry of Love

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Available Light’s Paradise Park Zoo is a Dazzling Cry of LoveAvailable Light Theatre's production of Paradise Park Zoo by Savannah Reich. Photo by Matt Slaybaugh.
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Theatre, with its enforced awareness of the performers as people and its fusion of metaphor to physicality, is uniquely suited as a tool of empathy. There’s no better example of bodies on stage fulfilling that mission right now than Available Light’s production of Savanna Reich’s Paradise Park Zoo directed by Eleni Papaleonardos.

Paradise Park Zoo takes one of the hoariest tropes of Western Art – the similarities of animals to people and a zoo to the constraints of society – but avoids falling into the trap of another Animal Farm played for laughs or didactic headlines. The Riffe’s Studio One here places the audience on the floor surrounded by five cages. Joe Wolfle’s perfect set has a scuzzy lo-fi charm intimating some recent apocalypse with cages that recall a cage match as much as a zoo. One of the cages – labeled just like the others – contains “The Band,” fronted by Drew Eberly on guitar and vocals and Whitney Thomas Eads on keys and vocals, in a mode somewhere between John and Exene and Schneider and Pierson, with the support of Marc Conte on drums and backing vocals. The band signals tonal shifts and provides some needed sleight of hand on some scene shifts as they whip through a combination hits like Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and Hole’s “Miss World” along with a few of what I think were originals.

The ingenious three-part structure starts by drawing parallels between the other four cages: monkeys Pancakes (Ian Short) and Jenny (Acacia Duncan), lionesses Tatiana (Kim Garrison-Hopcraft) and Dee (Elena Perantoni), humans Cynthia (Audrey Rush) and Gerald (Jordan Fehr), and the oddest of the couples a Red Panda (Michelle Lowery) and Komodo Dragon (Adam Humphrey). The way we internalize the strictures of our oppression is a fire tossed between these cages. Rush and Fehr’s hilarious banter and physical comedy fall somewhere between an acid Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and a cracked-mirror Nick and Nora Charles, fantasizing about escape but resisting that pull with a laser focus on details and purity testing. Dee’s younger lioness is drawn to everything she hasn’t experienced before being placed with Tatiana and Perantoni is heartbreaking as she edges toward the door left open (in what’s implied is a trap or cruel joke) but can’t quite break free from Tatiana’s passive-aggressive manipulation of one who “knows better.” Garrison-Hopcraft layers the loneliness of Tatiana under a delicious, oily menace, she never downplays her character’s terror at being alone, but she and Papaleonardos’ direction never let it get her off the hook either.

Ian Short and Acacia L. Duncan in Available Light Theatre’s production of Paradise Park Zoo by Savannah Reich. Photo by Matt Slaybaugh.

In more unspoken territory, Lowery’s Red Panda is wracked with neuroses and an inability to just slow down as Humphrey’s Komodo Dragon dispenses what can be good advice to “be still.” The hilarious contrasts in these very physical performances underline the crumbling background-radiation menace of being stuck in a small space with someone who will kill you if they get the chance. Humphrey’s lizard doesn’t stop being a predator, he’s just waiting for his moment, and Lowery is surprised every time she’s reminded of that fact. There’s a similar funny grimness in the monkey cage which we join in the middle of an argument between Duncan’s Jenny and Short’s Pancakes not long after Pancakes has “accidentally” murdered a third monkey added to the cage seen as a competitor for Jenny. The struggle to be a good person from Short and Duncan’s sad resignation reverberates through everything else in the play.

The second section addresses the obvious complaints about the structure set up by the first with the actors taking turns behind microphones to ask questions, starting with “Why don’t you show us what happens outside of the cages?” The central metaphor of the play is heartbreakingly played out with the cast leading around a huge, hollow elephant puppet as they describe how elephants are convinced they can’t break a chain early so by the time they’re more than large enough it would never occur to them to try. The skin of that elephant on the ground is one of the most arresting images I’ve seen on a stage this year. Papaleonardos has the best eye in town for the way bodies and movement speak when words fail and her collaboration with choreographer Josh Manculich in this middle section – with the cast expanded to include Dakota Thorn – is nothing short of magic.

Paradise Park Zoo loses a significant amount of steam in the final section where the animals address the theatre door as a door and argue over their plans for escape in a mix of a town hall and a Quaker meeting. Part of the problem with this section is the line the audience has to put our chairs on with the actors interspersed is an oval, so many of the seats can’t see the action occurring. The other part is that what’s handled so subtlely in the play earlier is driven home with a hammer here in a way the production can only do so much to soften.

Those last 20 minutes – of the 110 with intermission running time – barely dampened my slack-jawed delight at this play. The production finds ingenious ways to solve the problems of its twisty, complicated staging with graceful solutions I wasn’t expecting at almost every turn. Even things I found corny of heavy-handed at first, like an attempt to make the intermission immersive, left me stunned with how well it solved a problem I didn’t even know the play presented. Papaleonardos’ direction – with hefty assists from Carrie Cox’s evocative lighting and Dave Wallingford’s subtle sound – keeps the audience focused on the characters without getting bogged down in quick changes or attempts to dazzle and distract us from what she and the playwright are saying. This is the kind of play that does what only a play can do, and it’s a magical ending to Available Light’s 2016-2017 season.

Paradise Park Zoo runs through May 20 with shows at 8 p.m. May 12 and 13 and May 18-20 and 2 p.m. May 14. For tickets and more info, visit avltheatre.com/shows/paradise-park-zoo/.

Feature image: (l to r) Ian Short, Michelle G. Lowrey, Acacia L. Duncan, Audrey Rush, Kim Garrison Hopcraft, and Elena M. Perantoni in Available Light Theatre’s production of Paradise Park Zoo by Savannah Reich. Photo by Matt Slaybaugh.

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