Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see Bill's review of Native Gardens
Playwright Robert Askins (Hand to God) has written a dark, meditative allegory on tribalism and its disruptive consequences. Titled The Squirrels, it can be taken in multiple waysdeliberately, I think. La Jolla Playhouse is staging its world premiere production through July 8.
Mr. Askins begins with a scientific lecture, delivered by Brad Oscar, on the social aspects of squirrels, including how they cluster according to type, how the different types can be rivals but also how they can assist each other. Mr. Oscar returns a couple of times as the scientific explainer, but he also becomes one of the squirrels around whom the story revolves. In fact, Mr. Oscar's character is the prime disrupter of the play.
The story, as set up by the lecture, revolves around the privileged gray squirrels and the disadvantaged fox squirrels. Here, the coin of the realm is nuts, and the squirrels who manage to put away the most nuts are the ones who will likely survive the winter months.
Gray squirrels are typically in the best survival position and can afford to enjoy the fruits of what they might consider their superior labors. Fox squirrels seek ways to survive, either through the largess of their gray counterparts or by tapping the gray's larder.
All kinds of disruption ensue: Carolinius (Marcus Terrell Smith) steps forward to lead the fox squirrels by encouraging toughness and pride. He also attracts the romantic attention of Chordata (Lakisha May), a gray squirrel concerned with becoming pregnant and worrying that there are no appropriate mates among her own kind. The fox squirrel dilemma also concerns Mammalia (Candy Buckley), a gray who wants both types of squirrels to prosper, even if it means sharing the food supplies.
But, as conditions become bleak, desperation grows. Rodentia (Summer Spiro), a fox squirrel adopted by the grays when she was orphaned, turns on those who adopted her in vixen-like manner. Scurius (Terrence Archie), the wise senior gray squirrel, panics and begins to gorge on the available nuts. Mr. Oscar takes up the role of Sciuridae, a gray who plots to "win" by disrupting gray privilege so he can seize power.
It's a credit to Christopher Ashley's 90-minute, no intermission production that these dynamics sort themselves out as clearly and as crisply as they do. He's coached the cast into not only embodying their roles as squirrels but also embodying them in a way that they play out heroics, scheming, and tragic consequences reminiscent of Shakespeare. Mr. Oscar particularly shines within a capable cast in his dual role as explainer and plotter.
The Playhouse is using the Mandell Weiss Forum for this production, a theatre with semi-circular open configuration. To me, the Forum is the most challenging of the Playhouse's three theaters, primarily due to lack of a proscenium and audience seating that is also in a semi-circle. Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has overcome much of the stage shape problem by building up, so that a tree-like configuration provides the multiple playing spaces that are needed (defined nicely by Tyler Micoleau's lighting design). Paloma Young's costume designs keep the focus on the actors as squirrels while still reminding the audience of their human analogues. Cricket S. Myers sound effects land well, but the cast occasionally succumbs to the Forum's acoustical habit of making anything less than perfect diction into mush.
Not as pointed than George Orwell's "Animal Farm," The Squirrels seems more enamored with the scientific side of squirrel behavior than with how that behavior plays out in ways that resemble humans (though Mr. Askins has fun inventing "squirrel words" that have little trouble being understood). He's aiming more for universal truths than at contemporary politics.
Audience members' enjoyment may rest both on how much they appreciate the universal truths, and on how much they want to imagine contemporary political figures as squirrels.
In addition to the principal cast, the Squirrel Ensemble members are Sidney Hill, Max Singer and Danielle Wineman, all Master of Fine Arts students at the University of California, San Diego.
The Squirrels, through July 8, 2018, at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla CA. Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm; Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 7pm; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are available by calling (858) 550-1010 or by visiting lajollaplayhouse.org.