Through Nov. 22. 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. 2 p.m. Sunday. $6-$18. Theater Emory and Out of Hand Theater co-production, 605 Asbury Circle (the Dobbs University Center on the Emory campus). 404-727-5050; outofhandtheater.com, theater.emory.edu.
Bottom line: Actions speak louder than words
By Bert Osborne
You could mistake the setting for a country club. Dressed in fashionable white Polo sweaters or tennis skirts, the characters roam a manicured lawn of grass and other brightly painted greenery – the costumes and set are by the multifaceted Leslie Taylor (whose last design was a dingy South African slum in “Blood Knot”) – replete with nice furniture, and a conspicuous jungle gym in a back corner of the stage.
Their typical afternoon includes playful physical activity and liberal quoting of Shakespeare. You expect them to serve tea at any moment, but something isn’t quite right with this picture.
Maybe it’s the way they often sniff each other and pick at one another’s hair. Or how some of the guys in the group are prone to bumping chests. At the sudden sound of a buzzer, the men and women form two lines. They bow and curtsy, and then retire to separate chambers — only to repeat their routine the next day, and the day after that.
Because the play is called “Hominid,” you might guess where this Out of Hand/Theater Emory co-production is going long before director Ariel de Man reveals an observation booth, manned by an animal behaviorist who’s studying this colony of, yes, apes.
Conceived and developed by members of Out of Hand’s core company (and written by its resident playwright, Ken Weitzman), the show is based on the book “Chimpanzee Politics” by Dutch zoologist Frans de Waal. As an Emory professor and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, his work correlates social cooperation and conflict resolution among apes to the origins of morality and justice in humans.
That’s rather challenging source material for a theater piece, but Out of Hand has built a solid reputation on such experimental fare. “Meds,” for instance, its 2007 skewering of the pharmaceutical industry and the health care system, played out in an altered state known as Pharmaland, in a revue of songs and sketches based on actual statistics and case histories.
You don’t need to believe that chimps can speak to buy the idea that they share certain behavioral traits with people. “Hominid” casts professional actors Chris Kayser, Carolyn Cook and Adam Fristoe (alongside eight Emory students) as the sundry simians, but for all their well-delivered dialogue, the play’s most vital scenes have less to do with words than actions.
A struggle for authority between the alpha males leads to a shocking climax behind closed doors, accompanied only by guttural cries and moans, and a splattering of blood on a window. In a poignant moment, the baby girl of the family discovers a dead bird. The brightest spot is a lengthy acrobatic performance by the two youngest boys, trying to maneuver that jungle gym (take a bow, Timothy Harland and Jake Krakovsky).
Among other effective touches by director de Man: a lovely dance interlude (set to original music by Kendall Simpson); a chilling nightmare sequence (lighting by Scott Little); and a bit of physical shtick, with the actors fast-forwarding, rewinding, slowing down or freezing their moves, as the scientist reviews a surveillance tape.
Talk is cheap and, in comparison, an easy out.