Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Mixed Blood Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule (updated)

Also se Arty's review of Songs for a New World

Regina Marie Williams and Bruce A. Young
Photo by Rich Ryan
Jack Reuler founded Mixed Blood Theatre in 1976 and stayed on as its artistic director for an incredible run of forty-five years. During that time, the company has consistently mounted theater that challenges audiences by calling attention to injustice and shining light on those too often left in the corners of society. Reuler has announced his plans to retire at the end of this season, and as a parting gift has directed Animate, a world premiere by Ken LaZebnik performed at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. I cannot imagine a more heartful, enjoyable, or perfectly rendered gift.

Animate is not just performed at the zoo; the zoo is its primary thematic element. The play is presented as promenade theater, with audience members walking from location to location witness different scenes with, in this case, seals, gorillas, polar bears, a giraffe, a sloth, and a tiger looking upon the proceedings as if to authenticate them. Reuler has had great past success with plays in promenade style: 2017's Safe at Home was set in a variety of behind-the scenes spaces at CFS Field, home of the Saint Paul Saints baseball team; in 2019 Autonomy ferried audience members riding on golf carts through a circuitous route laid out at the River Center exhibition hall in downtown Saint Paul, pausing for scenes along the way.

In Animate, the large audience starting out together for an opening scene that establishes the narrative, set in the fictional Jackson Kennicott Zoo (what a great and believable name!), before dividing into six groups that each are led to one of six scenes (each in the company of one of the above named animals), cycling through all six as they uncover different facets of a crisis facing the zoo—along with a few lesser but still compelling conflicts—before gathering back at the zoo's outdoor amphitheater for the resolution.

The play opens in spectacular fashion with a helicopter—not an elaborate stage effect, thank you Miss Saigon—but an actual chopper landing outside the open doors of the assembly area where a courier (Randy Reyes) hops out with an urgent delivery for the zoo's keeper of pangolins (Kevin Kling). He barges in on a briefing by Jackson Kennicott's executive director (Regina Marie Williams), assembled with the zoo's board chair (Sally Wingert), head curator (Bruce A. Young), an officer from the Coca Cola foundation, a key funder (Jevetta Steele), and the mayor's chief of staff (Warren C. Bowles). They are gathered in advance of a major announcement: the zoo will be the home of a prestigious new rhinoceros habitat with the mission of bringing the northern white rhino back from extinction. The announcement is derailed by a revelation that the wealthy donor funding the center is a racist and that an anti-racism activist (Taj Ruler) is determined to shut the project down.

Based on the caliber of actors cited above, it's easy to discern that Reuler assembled a cream of the crop cast for Animate, and they all glow. This entire enterprise has the sheen of a labor of love. In addition to the eight actors named above, eight other actors appear live, three appear on screens as Wingert's feisty board chair strives to keep the rhino project alive—here, Barbara June Patterson offers an exquisite portrait of an old-moneyed doyenne whose mind is beginning to go, but whose grace remains solidly intact, and Joe Minjares epitomizes a mayor whose leadership takes the form of counting votes. And yes, that really is Don Cheadle narrating a video created to promote the rhino center.

In addition to the central crisis over the fate of the rhino center, the zoo faces the separation of a pair of gorillas who have been mates for life in order to advance their breeding program; whether or not to euthanize a beloved giraffe who has outlived her role at the zoo and thus deemed a "surplus animal"; and the pangolin keeper's conflict, this last being a comical break from the more serious issues, with Kling most amusing as a nerdy animal lover and long time bachelor on his wedding day, while Khamara Pettus charms as his bride.

In the manner of such Robert Altman films as Nashville, Gosford Park or Short Cuts, the large cast comprises an embarrassment of talent, but with so many characters it is hard to find a center. In the end, it is Regina Marie Williams as the driven zoo director Keisha Hardeman. Her character articulates the hard choices that have to be made, both on the crisis facing the Jackson Kennicott Zoo and more broadly in life. We observe Keisha at lunch break with the head curator, an old hand at the zoo, endowed with well-earned perspective in Bruce A. Young's performance. He encourages Keisha not to push so hard, to take things easier—all in the company of Chloe (her real name), the tree sloth perched above them, the slowest, most sedate animal imaginable. Playwright LaZebnik and director Reuler use the animals almost as a Greek chorus, commenting on the narrative by their mere presence.

Similarly, two primatologists, one well beyond reason in her devotion to the gorillas, played with palpable passion by Kate Fuglei, the other her level-headed former partner, a born-again pragmatist played by Stephen Yoakam, argue their cases in front of the gorilla enclosure, with the magnificent primates looking on. When the fiery protest leader Tamar, given a persuasive edge by Taj Ruler, and the foundation officer representing the power of corporate wealth, played with steadfast dignity by Jevetta Steele, face off, these two forceful women stand in the large cats building, with a glowering Bengal tiger pacing in its enclosure. Lipica Shah, as the giraffe keeper, makes a passionate plea for the life of the giraffe she has cared for since its birth as a fifteen foot giraffe in the enclosure next door chomps at the leaves of a tree branch swinging from the ceiling, testifying on behalf of its vitality.

Abbee Warmboe, premiere prop designer for many Twin Cities theater productions, handles props as well as scenic and costume design. Scenery is minimal—the zoo is the set. Costumes, on the other hand, are exceedingly well chosen, with each character's garb in perfect sync with their role in the story. Keisha, the heavily burdened director, dresses just like directors dress: stylish, expensive, but ready to work. Kiki the primatologist gone rogue dresses just as such a character would dress, while her opponent Jonah has traded his field gear for the trappings of academia. I am positive I have seen the nubby wool jacket Geraldine the foundation officer sports at numerous board meetings I've attended. And while Warty the pangolin keeper seems inclined to less formal nuptials (I mean, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is his wedding march), who could resist putting him in a tuxedo with an enclosure full of penguins across the room? Eric Mayson composed jaunty music piped over the zoo's public address to prompt movement and provide a connecting link as groups trek from scene to scene.

The play makes a strong case for the importance of zoos in today's world as organizations committed to the well-being of the animals in their keep and, crucially, working toward the preservation of species—in the wild when possible, but increasingly in controlled habitats for animals whose native environments no longer exist. This message is delivered eloquently in the story of the Wyoming toad, an actual case of a species rescued from extinction that succeeded without fanfare through the patient, methodical work of zoo scientists, curators and keepers.

LaZebnik uses this message as a frame to raise other questions. It weighs the long-term good of building an infrastructure, however noble its mission, against immediate needs to turn the page on systemic racism and to address housing, food, child care, and health. It speaks to the nature of our personal legacy and whether it is based on what we accomplish or on the context in which that accomplished occurred. It questions the morality of placing an individual's happiness—human or nonhuman—above a greater good. It also demonstrates the way technology affects the dynamics of conflict and decision making, with the activist using social media to spread her message to a world-wide following, while the board chair uses her phone like a weapon, attempting to snare support to keep the threatened center afloat.

Animate is a wondrous work of theater. It is a shame that its limited run will keep more audiences from seeing it—at present, all performances are sold out. With some alterations of the script to account for different animal exhibits at different zoos, it is conceivable that similar collaborations would allow Animate to play in other cities. That would be a wonderful outcome, as the play deserves to be seen, and its message heard.

Ultimately, I think Animate is about hope. Hope realized for the Wyoming toad and hope for the northern white rhino. There really is a project underway to bring the species back from extinction, with, at last report, nine live embryos created using harvested eggs and sperm from the last of the great creatures to perish, with plans for Southern White Rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to serve as surrogate mothers. And Tamar has hope that her work will break the enduring chains of systemic racism. When asked how much change she expects her campaign against the zoo to accomplish, she says "Maybe just a spoonful. But I'll take it." If that isn't unfettered hope, I don't know what is.

Animate, a Mixed Blood Theatre production, runs through September 26, 2021, at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, 1225 Eastbrook Drive, Saint Paul MN. All performances are sold out. For information and cancellations go to or call 612-338-6131.

Playwright: Ken LaZebnik; Director: Jack Reuler; Set, Costume and Prop Design: Amber Brown; Lighting Design: Abbee Warmboe; Audiovisual Design: Scott Edwards; Composer: Eric Mayson; Video Editor: Anna Robinson; Video Composer: Sondre Drakensson; Stage Manager: Emily Robinson; Assistant Stage Manager: Haley Walsh; Company Stage Manager: Maridee Slater; CSM Production Manager: Joy Claire.

Cast: Bonni Allen (Lizbet Anderson), Warren Bowles (Andre Wright), Don Cheadle (Narrator on video), Kate Fuglei (Kiki Robbins), Kevin Kling (Warty O'Shea), Regan Linton (Lilly Hudson), Clyde Lund (voice of Preston Davis), Joe Minjares (Mayor Fernandez on video), Barbara June Patterson (Beverly Buchanan on video), Khamara Pettus (Elena Mamani), Rose Portillo (Teresa Hechter on video), Raul Ramos (Larry Banks), Randy Reyes (Ed Kranepool), Taj Ruler (Tamar Rotella), Marquetta Senters (Rev. Joanne Gulley), Lipica Shah (Laurette), Jevetta Steele (Geraldine Johnson), Regina Marie Williams (Keisha Hardeman), Sally Wingert (Liz Conway), Stephen Yoakam (Jonah Glickman), Bruce A. Young (Joe Gleason).