Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Backyard Renaissance Theatre’s Intense “Zoo Story” Takes Flight.


Remember when you were told, or you told someone else ‘not to talk to strangers’? Peter (Phil Johnson) didn’t get the message. Either he was too busy being wrapped up in himself, or he just plain forgot.

Edward Albee’s 1959 “Zoo Story”, now considered an American classic, is currently in powerful and intense production staged by Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company through July 29th at the at the home of Diversionary Theatre.  

This season three year old Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company has been selected as La Jolla Playhouse’s 2018-2019 Resident Theatre. For at least one year Backyard will have a place to call home. Yea! 
Francis Gercke (L) and Phil Johnson
Albee’s "Zoo Story” can get under your skin for a variety of reasons not the least of which is the title. What picture you might conjure up of a zoo is no doubt different than mine. So lets take this dark ride into Albee’s assertions of zoo's and animals together.

Under the skillful direction of Rosina Reynolds, who steers this production with perfection, the play and players, two men meet as casual strangers (or not) in New York’s Central Park. P: “I sit on this bench almost every Sunday.”

One wants to ‘talk’ the other wants to read. One feels entitled the other has nothing but a few broken or worn out 'things'.  Over the course of less than an hour the play builds to a crescendo of emotions taking us down a path no one would have expected, or anticipated.  

Peter is clean -shaven, well–dressed in a tan corduroy sports jacket, checkered shirt and bowtie, brown shoes and bluish trousers. (Jessica John Gercke reimages a 50’s look beautifully). He is married, has two daughters, two cats, and two parakeets, wears glasses, smokes a pipe, is an advertising executive and lives in an upper class neighborhood.

One might say he is living the dream. But living a dream to me might not be the same as it is to Peter. Today he wants to be left alone. In fact he is a solitary man, quiet, soft spoken and gentle but no one really knows what lies beneath.  
Johnson and Gercke
 Jerry is scraggly looking with a few days facial hair, torn pants (by a dog that attacked him) a plaid unbuttoned short sleeved shirt with a soiled undershirt exposed. He's desperate to have a conversation with someone, anyone. He’s solitary, gruff, and aggressive, in your face rude and asks a lot questions.

Jerry’s isolation is a different type of isolation than let’s say Peter’s. He yearns for someone to connect with while Peter doesn’t need the connection. There is no yin to another’s yang; they are as different as night is to day and with absolutely no meeting of the minds.
Something, though in their individual id brings them together and it brings out the animal instinct in each.

Jerry approaches Peter, who, at first turns his back on him, but Jerry won’t go away. He tells him he’s been to the zoo and ‘that Peter will read about it in the paper the next day 'or see it on TV news'. That gets Peter’s attention.
A day at the Zoo
 Most of this conversation is a rambling stream of what possessions Jerry has (toilet articles, empty picture frames and pornographic playing cards, to name a few), his existence in a flophouse on the Upper West Side, his relationship with women, his landlady and her dog (that he will eventually kill) and the sorted life of both parents that ultimately left him alone in this world.

When Peter has had enough and gets up to leave Jerry stops him and insists on having Peter get off the bench so he can have it.  In a twist of irrational possessiveness Peter will not let go of the bench claiming it was his before Jerry got there and it belongs to him now. (J: “You have everything, and now you want this park bench.”) When Jerry pulls out a knife and eggs Peter on to engage in a fight, breathing stopped and a gasp ran through the house.  



Both men live out their characters’ personalities to the ‘nth degree. Johnson’s seemingly passive resistance or aggressive to Jerry’s openly aggressiveness matches his body language. We can tell just by an expression, a simple move one-way or the other what he is thinking, how he’s absorbing Jerry’s words; maybe he seems to agree with what he hears. At other times he’s annoyed, yet he can’t seem to move away from what he must feel as danger. Fatal attraction?

In Gercke we have the penetrating, concentrated and powerful intentions of a man with a goal. There is nothing unintended about him or in his marvelous performance. Straight forward? Not so much. Round about, convoluted and calculated, well choreographed as much as possible for him to put his exit plan into play? Yes

Set designer Justin Humphries leave the actor’s two options or two benches and a small grassy area for Gercke to pace around.  Alex Crocker’s lighting with Matt Lescault-Woods sound design, the Central Park Zoo couldn’t have been further away from us, unless you count the two animals fighting over a park bench on a Sunday at the Zoo.  

This early one act essay of Albee’s work doesn’t get produced often enough these days for several reasons; high tech, original (nothing wrong with that) and or big money making musicals that might bring in profits if they make it to Broadway. However presenting a slice of life that is as true today as it was in the ‘50’s is just as valuable, or more so to make a point and a truth that the more things change the more they stay the same.

And the thing about talking to strangers? Well, if the shoe fits...

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through July 29th
Organization: Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company
Phone: 619-977-0999
Production Type: Drama
Where: 4545 Park Blvd. San Diego, CA 92116
Ticket Prices: From $18.00 to $35.00
Web: backyardrenaissance.com
Venue: Diversionary Theatre
Photo: Daren Scot

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