Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo
Deaf West Theatre
Review by Sharon Perlmutter


Troy Kotsur and Russell Harvard
Photo by Kevin Parry for The Wallis
Deaf West's co-production of Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo is not like their musicals Big River and Spring Awakening, in which the logical pairings of deaf and hearing characters brought deeper meaning to the productions. It isn't like their Cyrano in which a modern adaptation of a classic dealt head-on with the idea of deafness making someone feel like an outsider. It isn't even like their American Buffalo or Flowers for Algernon, where deaf and hearing actors shared the stage to explore issues of communication. It is a straightforward ASL production of Albee's play, with voice actors providing interpretation for non-ASL-fluent audience members. As someone who has frequently been impressed by the stunning creativity of Deaf West and how their bilingual productions often add so much to the text, I was taken aback by how simply this play is presented. I would be hard-pressed to identify one thing about this production that was made better or more interesting by the fact it was presented in ASL with voice actors on the side. It is simply a production of a play in sign language.

That said, what is most striking about At Home at the Zoo is that it is a study in playwriting. Many people are familiar with Albee's classic Zoo Story, the one-act two-hander in which Peter, a wealthy publisher with the perfect homelife, is accosted on a park bench by Jerry, a somewhat unstable drifter who wants to have a conversation and won't take no for an answer. Peter can be seen as symbolic of success; he has everything we all strive for—or, at least, what we've all been told we strive for (money, spouse, kids, pets—there's probably a white picket fence in there someplace). But Jerry, lower class and unkempt, sees that something is missing. He talks about having gone to the zoo and seeing that each animal is kept in its own cage; but he's not really talking about a zoo. He perceives that we're all in our own cages, and he's desperate to break into someone else's cage, just to have some real one-on-one contact, even if it turns out to be dangerous in there. Zoo Story presents a conflict between buttoned-up society and the need for honest, human interaction.

But 50 years after Albee wrote Zoo Story, he wrote a prequel for it, called Homelife—which is the first act of At Home at the Zoo. Homelife shows us Peter at home with wife, right before he leaves for the park. Ann interrupts Peter as he's trying to read (just as Jerry will) and, as it turns out, she has a complaint: as a lover, Peter is great at "making love," but he's no good at all at "fucking." Ann doesn't always want tenderness; she's looking for passion, power, and, well, for Peter to unlock the animal within. With Homelife before it, Zoo Story now becomes a different play. We see what motivates Peter, we understand what the stakes are for him. Peter is no longer a symbol of American success; he's a guy who has just learned he isn't satisfying his wife. It's hard to appreciate At Home at the Zoo just as it is, without marvelling over how Albee's prequel transformed Peter.

Troy Kotsur plays Peter as a basically decent guy who is not equipped to respond to his wife's complaint, and is certainly not prepared to respond to Jerry. He would rather read than talk, but there's no malice in it. He jokes easily with his wife and thinks everything is fine. When Ann finally spills the beans, his failure to even understand the problem is devastating. But if there is a flaw in the production, it is that Jake Eberle, as Peter's voice, does not always match Kotsur's ASL delivery. There are times, particularly in Zoo Story, where Eberle makes Peter sound like a psychologist gently questioning Jerry in a patronizing manner, while Kotsur's Peter comes off as politely interested. It's a bit of a disconnect in the two performances.

No such problems occur with Ann, played by Amber Zion, and perfectly matched vocally by Paige Lindsey White. Ann, at least before her revelation, is delightfully playful. She's a little scattered, but always willing to turn things into a joke—it's something you always see in the smile that plays on Zion's face and hovers in White's voice.

There's also a fine pairing for the role of Jerry, with Jeff Alan-Lee providing the voice for Russell Harvard's performance (Harvard plays the role only through March 15; Tyrone Giordano takes over for the remainder of the run). Harvard's signing as Jerry is big, broad and enthusiastic (making a nice contrast with the more controlled signing of Kotsur's Peter), and Alan-Lee matches him by giving Jerry a wild, off-balance voice.

There are a couple of odd choices in Coy Middlebrook's direction. In the first act, the voice actors are off stage, while all attention is on the deaf actors. In the second act, there are two park benches; Peter and Jerry are on the stage left one, while stage right is occupied by the voice actors who subtly mirror some of the action. The same technique across the board would better serve to unify the two acts of this now-single play. There is also some ambiguity as to whether the characters are actually deaf. Late in Homelife Ann is talking to Peter when his back his turned, but he somehow understands her. For a production that is otherwise a clean performance of Albee in ASL, a moment of staging that really only makes sense with hearing actors seems out of place.

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts - Paul Crewes, Artistic Director; Rachel Fine, Managing Director - and Deaf West Theatre - David J. Kurs, Artistic Director - present Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo, at the Lovelace Studio Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center through March 26, 2017. For tickets and information see www.theWallis.org

Scenic & Costume Design Karyl Newman; Lighting Design Julien V. Elstob; Sound Design Tom Jones; Production Stage Manager Jennifer Brienen; Assistant Stage Manager Kelsey Gilchriest; Assistant Director Sandra Mae Frank; ASL Master Linda Bove; Assistant ASL Masters Jessica Frank, Justin Jackerson. Directed by Coy Middlebrook.

Cast:
Troy Kotsur: Peter
Russell Harvard, Tyrone Giordano: Jerry
Amber Zion: Ann
Jake Eberle: Voice of Peter
Jeff Alan-Lee: Voice of Jerry
Paige Lindsey White: Voice of Ann




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