Absolute Theatre Company

One of the most horrible photographs in recent history was of Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978: 913 brightly clad dead bodies lying in the tropical sunlight. Look hard enough, and the stillness that seems to surround the scattered corpses becomes accusing: why didn’t we save them from themselves, from ourselves?

There’s a scene early in the third act of Terry Johnson’s Cries From the Mammal House that brings it all back: a cynical veterinarian in the south of England injects poison into the last few animals remaining in his father’s bankrupt zoo. The miserly father, recently dead, had left the zoo to deteriorate: the toucan is covered in mold; a dead toad in the reptile house is just left to rot. As the coup de grace, the father had sold the land to a South African cartel, which of course doesn’t want the zoo. As usual, the animals pay with their lives for a supposedly superior species’s botched guardianship.

Certain questions haunt this play: Are we our fellow creatures’ keepers? Who’s really behind bars in that larger zoo we call the world? And what are our rights and wrongs as custodians of the planet? Similar questions haunted Arthur Kopit’s The Assignment: The End of the World, another Absolute Theatre production. But those haunting questions, even by the end of Cries From the Mammal House, have not really been answered.

Somewhat too neatly, Johnson divides his characters into pro- and antilife factions, beginning with his protagonist David (David Cameron), a conservation-minded ornithologist and brother of the bitter vet, Alan (Larry Baldacci). (Alan seems to be one more of the typically unfeeling Britishers so common to the contemporary English theater of David Hare, Christopher Hampton, Harold Pinter, and Peter Nichols.) Home for his father’s funeral in the first act, David finds his family’s (and, by implication, the human) zoo decrepit and Alan consumed by self-pity. Though Alan’s wife, Anne (Elaine Carlson), is furious at her husband’s paralysis, she also has her own seething frustrations (she really loves David) and failures of nerve (she gave up her career as a psychotherapist when she fell in love with a patient, Alan). The final casualty is their feral teenage daughter, Sally (Kellie Lowery), who is obsessed with animal matings but terrified of sex.

David finds England, like his father’s broken-down zoo, to be “self-centered, myopic, soulless, and insane.” In the second act David pursues the natural world, leaving this unhappy isle for another, Mauritius, where he intends to breed and thus save the endangered “pink pigeon.” But in this polyglot third-world zoo, the pink pigeons, symbolically, don’t like each other enough to continue the species. The humans like each other but can’t seem to get together: witness Nirad and Lei, two unlikely lovers who call themselves “the Tony and Maria of the 80s.” He’s a garrulous Hindu trade unionist who cheerfully bad-mouths his island, and she’s a humorless Chinese Buddhist scholar whose parents forbid their union; they beg David to help them leave Mauritius for a new life in England. We also meet such colonial relics as Mr. Palmer, a dottily eccentric English overseer (who eventually becomes a Buddhist), his racist, ostentatiously Christian wife, and a mysterious Mauritian child of nature named Ngema, who not only finds David his pink pigeons but leads him to an unhoped-for discovery in the jungle. (Interestingly, Ngema is the only one of these displaced persons, the islanders, who doesn’t convert to another creed.)

The third act, which takes us back to England, opens very darkly, then ends with sudden and gratuitous hope (the bewildering mood changes come fast). There Alan pursues his death wish, and a strangely loving Anne coaxes from him the terrible, if heavy-handed, secret in the mammal house (roughly speaking, it equates our species’s incompetence as caretakers with Alan’s failure as a father). As if to keep this ugliness from registering, Johnson hurls in a hopeful finale: a now selfless David returns to England with Nirad, Lei, and Ngema–and a surprise we’re to believe will somehow redeem all the horrors: living specimens of the supposedly extinct dodo bird. Symbolically importing a sort of ark for the 80s, which may yet breed a better world, David has apparently gotten us all a second chance.

And yet that Jonestown-like image–Alan systematically executing the animals–fatally overshadows the play’s allegorical happy ending. The playwright’s indictments inevitably prove too strong for his play’s good: we end up expecting a more complex solution than three Mauritians and some dodo birds. The result provides one more reason why a playwright should never toke too deeply on his own symbols; eventually he’ll try to substitute them for real solutions, while the plot limps along, reduced to making philosophic points along the way.

But, no question, the Absolute Theatre Company does give this play’s second professional production a winning two-and-a-half hours. Warner Crocker’s staging paces the scattershot passions better than the script might suggest. Never permitting the allegory to become too abstract, Crocker even confers a semblance of momentum on this meandering plot, no small feat considering its schizophrenic mood changes. Thomas Mitchell’s set, an open-barred cage effectively hung with murals of penned-up animals and people, is abstract enough to represent both parts of David’s journey. And Cameron gives David a true explorer’s enthusiasm, his quest and energy in sharp contrast with Baldacci’s burnt-out bitterness. As Anne, Elaine Carlson provides the best work of the night, a well-textured study in desperate hopelessness.

Among the Mauritians, Dameon Carot clearly relishes his effusive, accommodating Nirad (despite such tortured lines as “A good Eastern thought is for thought to no longer exist–and a good Western thought never existed anyway”). Lisa Tejero brings a strangely Eastern efficiency to the no-nonsense Lei, and in potentially the most cliched part of all (at least there’s no sarong), Janis Henri keeps her dignity as the bird girl Ngema, something Kellie Lowery is hard-pressed to do as Sally, who’s forced to imitate animals. Gary Lowery provides strong support as Sally’s clumsy sweetheart, a butcher with artistic pretensions.

Of course the dodoes, Johnson’s act of wishful thinking, are never seen. I wish Jonestown hadn’t been either. This play unleashes an evil genie that it never manages to get back into the bottle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.