Thursday, March 29, 2007

PLAY: "Serendib"

What is it about "science" that makes people think they have to dress it up in drama for it to be interesting? Sometimes, it's enough to just marvel in the natural magic of life itself. Thankfully, David Zellnik's new play, Serendib, does the first while simultaneously mocking it, and excels in the latter by using Emily DeCola's marvelous puppetry. The plot is a well-executed (albeit unsurprising) parallel between a rivalry between two scientists over the girl they both love, and two alpha-male monkeys, and the mate they both desire. The expositional undercurrent involves the disputed genetic and emotional similarities between the two species and it is handled deftly by the nonchalant interjections of a documentary team that has come to film their research.

The entire affair is slickly and efficiently presented by Carlos Armesto, on a verdant revolving jungle set (designed by Ryan Elliot Kravetz). There is great theatricality in the duality between these half-human half-monkey puppet hybrids: and there is great athleticism too, verbal and physical, in the way two actors can maintain a human conversation even as their monkey alter-egos screw each others brains out. (Yes, more graphic than Avenue Q.) DeCola's design is full-bodied, wrapping the monkey around the actor's arm like a second skin, and the performers live truthfully within those circumstances, swinging from actor to actor as much as the monkeys themselves. However, while credit is due to the cast, their acting is almost more natural when they portray the monkeys: they owe an ironic debt to the puppets for cutting their strings. (Two exceptions: James Rana subtly provides comic relief through an otherwise subdued part, and PJ Sosko lives up to the ebullient requirements of his cocky character.)

Serendib is also blessed with a remarkably strong script. It's not surprising, the way in which the love triangle between the attractive researcher Anna and her two rivaling bosses (a German, Fichke, and a Russian, Ramsov) correlates to the alpha-male war between Noc and Jasantha over the lovely Shivani. But the language is often poetic, and even when David Zellnik uses the device of translating the monkey language (thus taking sides in the intellectual debate over whether monkeys have personalities and/or experience happiness), it still touches us. According to the playwright, we "all eat at the same banquet of fears and desires": after experiencing Serendib (on the first night of previews, no less), I have to agree.

Serendib is a variant for Sri Lanka, where the play is set, but it also doubles as a near homophone for serendipity, which is what those theatergoers lucky enough to stumble across this performance at Ensemble Studio Theatre will experience. Carlos Armesto has managed a rather intimate illusion; it would be a shame to miss it.

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