Writer: Rajiv Joseph
Director: Merri Milwe
Reviewer: Jonathan Alexandratos
Much like origami produces beauty out of blank pieces of paper, Rajiv Joseph exhibits a similar splendor in his Animals Out Of Paper. This play puts Ilana Andrews (Nairoby Otero), expert origamist, front and center. It then tosses her two men: the star-struck origami enthusiast Andy (David Beck) and Andy’s student, high school hotshot paper-folder Suresh (Maneesh Sasikumar). As Ilana tutors Suresh in origami (and, in some ways, as Suresh tutors Ilana), Andy creeps toward Andrews, hoping to be the man that will care for her every need. While Suresh and Andy influence Ilana in their respective ways, the play’s anti-heroine must consider another love: origami, for which her knack has suddenly waned.
Origami provides the perfect metaphor for this play – an object full of creases and folds, resembling life. Each of the play’s three characters has creases, fading memories of past traumas. Andy writes his down in the form of “blessings,” even if they aren’t all true. Ilana has written a book – the “number two origami book in the country!” – even if it isn’t all true. And Suresh, Suresh is clearly in the throes of caring for his ailing father, even if we only learn the cursory facts of that situation from a series of all too true phone calls. Fold these echoes of the past into the current reality presented in this play, and the piece takes shape, much as origami does.
While the three actors Animals Out Of Paper requires need not know how to fold paper, they do need to know how to fold language. Director Merri Milwe has done Joseph’s work a great service through the talent she has selected to pleat this playwright’s words. Maneesh Sasikumar plays Suresh with just the right amount of juvenile humor, emotional mood swinging, and earned gravitas. From Sasikumar’s program biography, it would seem as though this young actor has not yet had the swath of rôles other actors have accumulated. This should change soon, however, as Sasikumar’s raw talent bleeds into every drop of sweat, spit, and tears he leaves on that stage. Equally compelling is Nairoby Otero’s Ilana. Otero gives the character her needed peaks and valleys of humor and pathos. Ilana can easily slip into caricature, but Otero keeps her character away from that fate by injecting into each of her lines a transcendent honesty familiar to anyone who has ever had something, and then lost it. Also, David Beck brings Andy a type of awestruck fanboy-ness that is equal parts flattering, funny, and creepy. At times, especially in the play’s tense second act, Beck could even go further with Andy’s obsessive, almost maniacal Nice-Guys-Finish-Last routine, an attitude reminiscent of many a so-called “men’s rights activist”. However, Beck’s Andy contributes an incredibly valuable blankness to contrast the vibrant paper folding being done by Ilana and Suresh.
Furthermore, Ran Xia’s set complements this show well. Xia has built a littered, scrappy place into what looks to be an abandoned hall of an old church. The audience hears lines about “counting blessings” while seated on folding chairs level with the actors in the remains of a hollowed-out church banquet room. The juxtaposition presented through this assists the play’s message that words don’t always reflect reality. The real origami that punctuates this set creates the one, small, good thing about the “paper zoo” in which these characters are held captive.
Claudia Toth’s lights further this project by giving the play the look of both an apartment and a construction site. Toth uses indoor lamps, chandeliers (beautiful, rustic fixtures in the church space), and what look like slightly less powerful flood lights to create the atmosphere of a Salvador Dalí painting: hauntingly beautiful, and recognizably surreal. Because this play exposes so many folds and creases of life, one might wish that the play’s blackouts be cut, in favor of showing audiences those often unseen scene and costume changes, exposing all crevasses of theatre.
Because less realism can be more, as in the aforementioned case, this production ought to scale back its use of sound, as well. Music and sound effects, probably integrated to take audiences into the play’s universe, only serve as clutter. For example, hip-hop loving Suresh is given a cell phone ring tone that sounds much too similar to that of a rotary phone, something that character would most likely never choose for his iPhone. Much of the music and other sound effects used also seemed incongruous with this production’s bare-bones set and lighting design. However, this is a small flaw in an otherwise outstanding evening.
In sum, YOLO! Productions and The Great Griffon have crafted a fantastic addition to the growing number of productions of Animals Out Of Paper. They have held dear raw talent, grassroots theatremaking, and simple, site-specific set design – all of the things that make this reviewer fall in love with the theatre time and again.
Runs until 28th February 2015 | Photo: Shira Friedman