Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Guest review 7 (2018-2019): CHIMPANZEE

“The Haunting Humanity of a Hominid Puppet” ****

By Elyse Orecchio (guest reviewer)

From time to time Theatre's Leiter Side will be posting reviews of Off-Off Broadway shows my schedule prevents me from seeing. I hope you find the expanded coverage useful. Sam Leiter

Wait, did that chimpanzee just get baptized?
Wait, did that chimpanzee just do the ‘happy baby’ yoga pose?
Wait, did that chimpanzee just accidentally pleasure herself with the hose of a vacuum cleaner? 
Chimpanzee. Photo: Richard Termine.
Watching this chimpanzee’s antics on stage at the HERE Arts Center, it’s easy to forget she’s a wooden puppet. “Wooden” is often a derogatory word used to describe an actor whose face doesn’t move. But in Nick Lehane’s Chimpanzee, the titular simian is bursting with animation, charm, and even a bit of cheekiness. Even though her face doesn’t move. Magnificently crafted by Lehane and expertly manipulated by three puppeteers, Rowan Magee, Andy Manjuck, and Emma Wiseman, this adorable ape will make a believer out of anyone who might have thought puppetry was just kid stuff. 
Chimpanzee. Photo: Richard Termine.
Presented by HERE’s Dream Music Puppetry Program, the hour-long nonverbal narrative is presented in short vignettes alternating between the aging chimp’s captivity in a biomedical lab and her memories of a happier life being raised in a home where humans lovingly tucked her into bed. So engaging is the childlike chimp that she holds our attention performing mundane everyday activities, like pouring a cup of tea or taking a bath. 
The Chimpanzee. Photo: Richard Termine.
In a particularly moving scene, she rubs the bald head of a baby doll and touches her own head in a moment of discovery. The puppet’s face doesn’t move, so why does it feel as though she has physically transformed? This is the marvel of puppetry done well.
Chimpanzee. Photo: Richard Termine.
Based on true events, Chimpanzee recounts the lives of chimps raised as human children in human homes in a series of cross-fostering experiments conducted in the United States. When funding dried up, or when the chimps became too mature, many went on to live as test subjects in biomedical facilities.
Chimpanzee. Photo: Richard Termine.
With only a simple platform and minimal props to set the scenes, Kate Marvin’s excellent sound design is a key player here. When the chimp is in the lab, we hear throngs of other chimps in the distance and the nerve-wracking click-clacking of footsteps and jangling keys, a constant reminder that this chimp—and many others—are on lockdown in a too-small space. The contrasting joyful sounds of children playing and a dog barking in her memories are a welcome relief from the jarring, jail-like scenes.  
Chimpanzee. Photo: Richard Termine. 
The life-sized chimpanzee puppet stands grand at full-length, making her listless demeanor all the more heartbreaking when she’s held in isolation. In the lab, she has little to do but sit idly in the fetal position, or helplessly bang the bars of her cage. The puppeteers infused her with such sadness and rage, I could hear the audience’s stifled breathing.
Chimpanzee. Photo: Richard Termine.
Hundreds of chimpanzees remain warehoused in labs today. This production shows the boundless capabilities of these incredible mammals. But just because there’s evidence they can be raised in human homes, should they? Chimpanzee provides the audience more questions than answers in this thought-provoking piece that refuses to stop monkeying around in my head.

HERE Arts Center
145 6th Ave, NYC
Through May 5

Elyse Orecchio studied musical theatre at Emerson College, acting at CUNY Brooklyn College, and English Linguistics & Rhetoric at CUNY Hunter College. She has worked in nonprofit communications for more than a decade. She lives in Sunnyside, Queens, with her husband Joe, kids Theo and Melody, and three cats. @elyseorecchio