Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Tooth and Claw

Also see Warren's review of The Great Ostrovsky

Elvis O. Nolasco and Susan McKey
To paraphrase Malcolm, the eccentric narrator in Michael Hollinger's outstanding new play Tooth and Claw enjoying its world premiere at the Arden Theatre Company, "Simple, everything starts out simple." Things may start out simple, but they quickly become quite complex in this new work about evolution, survival, and cultural imperialism on the Galapagos Islands. Malcolm's line applies not only to the complex situations unfolding on stage, but to the structure of Tooth and Claw itself, one of the most compelling, riveting, and thought-provoking plays to grace the American stage in recent memory. The Galapagos Islands might be many miles away from Philadelphia, but the issues of survival that the play raises are ones that all human beings face, no matter where they live.

The "simple" plot of Hollinger's play concerns Dr. Schuyler Baines (Susan McKey), a renowned biologist who moves to the Galapagos Islands to work at the Darwin Research Station to help save the endangered giant tortoises. Hindered by her inability to speak Spanish, Schuyler soon finds herself in over her head as the exigencies of saving tortoises are connected to a larger ecosystem in which animal and human lives are intricately intertwined. Given a tip that pepinos (sea cucumbers) are being harvested in illegal numbers by poor fisherman who are inadvertently damaging the fragile ecosystem through their actions, Schuyler attempts to stop this massive attack of environmental violence. Her efforts are met with backlash, though, as her precious tortoises are slaughtered by the fishermen in an act of retaliation and revenge. Schuyler and her colleagues soon find themselves held hostage by the rebel fishermen in what essentially turns out to be a battle to survive. Pitting animals against humans and humans against humans in a game where there are no easy winners, Hollinger's work makes Darwin's notion of "survival of the fittest" strikingly relevant for the 21st century.

What might have been merely an action thriller (and the play is extremely suspenseful) is handled with the utmost detail and nuance by Hollinger who asks complex and difficult questions from "How do we decide what makes one type of life or animal more valuable than another?" to "Are there circumstances in which humans should step in and aid in the "natural" process of evolution?" These questions aren't just theoretical, but are carefully posed again and again in a multitude of situations in which the answers are always changing depending on the context. Hollinger's genius is that he is able to pose such epic problems while simultaneously maintaining an amazing sense of intimacy and humanity vis-à-vis the characters. In less talented hands, Tooth and Claw would be a dry "talking heads" play, but Hollinger serves the audience with real flesh and blood characters who possess complex feelings, flaws, and real emotional depth. The fact that we come to identify with many of the play's figures only serves to further complicate the ideological positions that they each advocate and represent.

Hollinger's rich writing is well executed by one of the strongest acting ensembles to recently grace the stage. From the group of Galapagos fisherman who often serve as a sort of Greek chorus to the action to the principal figures, each actor brings insight and depth to his/her role. It is worth noting that, in a season that recently gave us an all-Latino cast with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics, it is exciting to see yet another play that primarily utilizes Latino actors and provides them with multidimensional roles. Similarly, in keeping with the sense of verisimilitude which the play establishes, Hollinger does not shy away from incorporating a great deal of Spanish into his script. As this is ultimately a play about communication and the translation of ideas between cultures, this linguistic element only serves to enrich Hollinger's already ambitious piece.

Cast-wise, Susan McKey gives a brilliant and moving performance as Schuyler Baines. It of course helps that Hollinger has given her (and the other characters) such wonderful dialogue that flawlessly mediates between mundane activities and those issues that are epic in scope. Schuyler's moments with Malcolm (Donald Grody), a fellow scientist, intellectual, and father figure for Schuyler, provide quiet, touching and insightful pauses in a play that frequently erupts into fiery debate and, at times, violence. Strong work is also provided by David Grillo as Carlos, Schuyler's gay co-worker who feels limited by the glass ceiling imposed by the Western world on South American scientists, preventing them from advancing in the world of research. In a supporting role, the talented Shirley Roeca as Ana, the Darwin Center's secretary, lends some humor and levity to the proceedings of this serious work.

Hollinger's play is given a first-rate production under the direction of Terrence J. Nolen who uses the thrust stage design (appropriately covered with sand, rocks, and wood to evoke the Galapagos) by James Kronzer to effective use. Despite the limited playing area, Nolen stages the work with a sense of expansiveness that matches the play's far-reaching and ambitious aims.

Evolution might not sound like an engaging evening of theater, but Hollinger has written an important play for our time that is entirely engrossing. Anyone who wants to see an excellent example of well-honed theatrical writing that will leave you thinking and discussing its ideas for a long time to come should quickly head to the Arden before this work becomes "extinct."

Tooth and Claw runs through April 11 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA. For schedule and tickets, call 215-922-1122 or visit Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Photo: Paola Nogueras

Warren Hoffman

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