In Robert Askins’ new dark comedy “The Squirrels” now making its world premiere at the La Jolla Place, Mandell Weiss Forum through July 8th, artistic director Christopher Ashley is directing a group of power hungry, and I mean hungry for as much as can be stored food and more power that comes with a largesse of food. Let's just say that Ashley is a good organizer. Most should be weary of an invasion of squirrels. I have rabbits eating my grass and that's bad enough.
Askins isn’t letting us off the hook with gluttony as an issue. His is an in your face, hit ‘um over the head until they get ‘it’ that features squirrels with habits the likes of greedy humans. Those are humans that can’t get enough food or power; whose behavior is out of the realm of civil and whose actions are hostile.
Few plays start with a lecture given by mad professor/scientist Brad Oscar /Sciuridae on the pecking order of squirrels. Wearing a lab coat and equipped with a clicker to show us photos of squirrel types on a pull down screen, he goes into some detail noting the differences between the Grey and Red Squirrels.
It’s more information than I care to take in but let’s compare the human condition with the squirrels for the sake of comparison. There are the dominant Grey Squirrels and the lesser Red Fox squirrels. In the squirrel kingdom, the Grey’s dominate.
In some pecking order there are also flying squirrels and tree squirrels. For this play, Askins is focused on the Grey and Red Fox.
Segue on to Bedwulf Boritt’s ginormous steel structure of a tree house set that ‘master of the house’ squirrel Scurius (a terrific Terence Archie) resides with his wife Mammalia (Candy Buckley), his daughter Chordata (Lakisha May) and his adopted daughter Rodentia (a fine and feisty Summer Spiro).
Their whole family is set for the winter and then some as far as their food supply is concerned. Scurius was a great hunter and planner in his day and has more food stored away than anyone in his family can possibly eat in years.
He is master of all he surveys even though his memory is losing some of its glow. He’s big, bulky and commanding and casts a long shadow. He has all his nuts lined up in a row somewhere underground and no worries.
|(L to R) Lakisha May, Candy Buckley, Terrence Archie and Summer Spiro|
The happy family picture is interrupted by a visit from an off again on again family neighbor Carolinius (Marcus Turrell Smith) a Red Squirrel. Like any family neighbor wanting to borrow a cup of sugar, he comes asking for nuts so his peeps won’t starve this winter.
According to him the food supply all over is dwindling as more and more trees are being cut down, fires are ravaging the forests and Mother Nature cannot keep up with supply and demand.
Both Chordata and Rodentia are more than willing to help Carolinius even for the sake of being good neighbors and to possibly ease tensions between the two warring class ‘families’ if you will; Grey vs. Red. They make a case for Scurius to give him some of his overstocked supply of food.
Pleas fall on deaf ears and with a little help from an outside troublemaker Sciuridae, who claims to have information ‘on the Red’s ways of food gathering. It seems they are sucking all the sap from the trees, and furthermore the Red’s are not their type socially, politically or class wise.
Mother and daughter send Carolinius home with his proverbial tail between his legs hoping Scurius will change his mind with a little coaxing from them. But it’s not to be especially with Rodentia switching sides to take advantage of any new situation that may benefit her.
Things go from bad to worse with the entire squirrel world deteriorating; war breaks out between the two clans, if you will, with Carolinius, who has eyes for Chordata and she for him, leading the troops into war and what follows is none too pretty.
|Lakisha May and Marcus Terrelll Smith|
A bloody battle erupts, Rodentia sides with Sciuridae, Scurius retreats and turns into a blimp eating all his stored nuts in a very disturbingly comical scene. In the end they all get their comeuppance, good, bad or indifferent.
Outfitted in Paloma Young’s huge squirrel tails and furry feet, color- coded to fit the types and human clothes and army uniforms coordinated with the fur, the squirrels are able to move about easily.
Overall the cast is exceptionally well suited for this off the wall, hard- hitting tale, not to be confused with tail. Terrence Archie is the perfect Scurius, commanding, frightening, pathetic and controlling at the same time.
Candy Buckley’s Mammalia is most convincing. Marcus Terrell Smith impresses as Carolinius. Summer Spiro is quirky as she makes her rounds as Rodentia. Lakisha May’s soft approach is a welcome relief and Brad Oscar is frightening in his dual roles as Scientist and Sciuridae.
|Candy Buckley and Terrence Archie|
Once again Askins manages to hit on all the hot button issues as gluttony, racism, prejudice, privilege and politics, in one 90 minute take for his story of all that’s wrong with the world to unravel.
This is the second of Askins’ plays that yours truly has seen; “Hand to God” and now “The Squirrels”. Pardon me if I can’t count either as coming close to making my favorite list of plays.
Between puppets and squirrels I’m ready to move on. There’s enough destructive behavior (more than 2,000 and counting children are being held in cells without their mothers’ to comfort them) playing out right now in real time sans puppets or squirrels, just with some really bad hombres that need to be called out by name on their junk.
Askins could fill a playbook with just yesterday’s tragic news.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through July 8th
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. La Jolla, CA 92037
Ticket Prices: Start at $20.00
Venue: Mandell Weiss Forum
Photo: Jim Carmody