Daring to open another play featuring an actor portraying a gorilla, scant months after Prymate so spectacularly flopped on Broadway, is either an act of great courage or great foolishness. Blake Cass's Copito, which just opened at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, is more courageous than foolish, and a much better play than Prymate, if less inherently memorable.
But if there are too few lows - and highs - for Copito to make much of an overwhelming impression, the title character is one well worth knowing. Copito de Nieve (Snowflake) was the only albino gorilla known to science; the all-white gorilla died at almost 40 years of age at the Barcelona zoo last November.
The male Copito is played here by actress Kara Peters. Cass and director Adam Brilliant have made the wise of choice of not asking Peters to mimic a gorilla's movement or speech patterns; when Peters speaks, she speaks in English (though the human characters don't understand her), and never moves in non-human ways. Yet, dressed in simple white clothes, and gazing intently at what's happening around her, Peters has a real presence and commands attention much as the real Copito no doubt did.
While the authors are interested in exploring Copito's humanity and the animality of their human subjects, they're careful not to tie themselves to a single concept of time or place. The action in the play shifts back and forth in time, as well as between the locations of Copito's zoo and two houses that play vital roles in the lives of people visiting the gorilla. These people include the now-single mother of two, Sally (Kristin Knapp) and her two children, Johnny and Mickey (Owen Cooney and Jefferson C. Post).
As Sally and her children pass Copito's cage (represented upstage center by two small boxes on which Peters perches) time and time again, sometimes caught up in the present and sometimes lost in the past, Copito remains a stalwart presence. At times, however, as the story of Sally's troubled marriage to Michael (also played by Post) is explored, Peters - aided by a subtle shift of Ryan Metzler's lights - occasionally changes her position to represent Julia, the reason Michael left Sally, and a woman trapped in a psychological cage of her own.
The relationship between Julia and Michael is the play's most provocative, primarily because Peters's casual, resigned performance works so well; her castmates are all good actors as well, but their energy is never quite as focused as Peters's. The play's climax finds Julia locked in a bathroom, conducting a long conversation with Michael trapped outside; it's theatrically absorbing, more for what's not said than what is, and it sheds thoughtful light on the ways humans trap both themselves and animals.
While there are some certainly some interesting elements in the play, particularly in the way each actor plays two roles that often intertwine with each other in complex ways, Copito doesn't add up to a great deal. At just over an hour, there's not enough time to develop both the Michael-Sally and Michael-Julia relationships fully enough to satisfy, and by the time the show ends, and both Julia and Copito meet their unfortunate fates, they're the only characters you can really feel for.
That dampens the visceral emotional impact that Cass and Brilliant seem to have intended, but it's a problem not easily fixable - the theatrical conceits used in this play couldn't be stretched much further without snapping. If Copito is never truly compelling drama, it's at least an intriguing and watchable theatrical exercise.
Midtown International Theatre Festival