by Madeleine George
Directed by Melia Bensussen
The Nora Theatre Company
A cAtalyst Collaborative@MIT Production
Central Square Theater
Central Square, Cambridge, MA
March 2 – 26, 2017
With Nancy E. Carroll, Lee Mikeska Gardner, Karoline Xu
The middle-aged lesbian linguistics professor, Brodie (Lee Mikeska Gardner), is pregnant and undergoing genetic counseling. Her graduate student girlfriend (Karoline Xu) hovers on the side, hoping for a more normalized relationship. To that end, the girlfriend persuades the linguistics professor to have an outing at the zoo where they encounter an ape (Nancy E. Carroll) with more going on under the hood than is obvious.
This witty, fun, fast-moving reflection on pregnancy, intelligence, language, relationship and a bunch of other things relies on the quick instincts of playwright and this adept trio of actors to shift scenes and create believable drama out of a multitude of roles. The result is a fun and persuasive voyage into issues of language, communication and compassion, with all of the themes addressed obliquely but effectively through a collage of intersecting scenes hovering around the main character’s plight.
If there is a central drama in this wonderful theatrical exploration, it is about a decision to be made by its protagonist, the unnamed linguistics professor ably and empathically played by The Nora Theatre’s artistic director, Lee Mikeska Gardner. Gardner is the only actor in the play to have only one role and she inhabits it with a durable sense of unfolding providence, a growing awareness that what life has to offer is more than a series of conceptual formations that aggregate into sentences and paragraphs.
Karoline Xu, on the other hand, has to play a myriad of parts – the genetic counselor, the ultrasound technician, the linguistics professor’s graduate student girlfriend, a bunch of spectators at the zoo, and the daughter of an older woman (Nancy E. Carroll), a native speaker of a rare language who she brings to the linguistics professor as part of a research project.
Xu is, in short, amazing. Her over-the-top, overly enthusiastic and bubbly genetic counselor is truly hilarious and her control of two sides of an arguing pair of adolescents watching the ape at the zoo is masterful. She exchanges roles in the flip of an eye and gives spark to each one of them.
Nancy E. Carroll, who plays the ape as well as the older woman who speaks the language under study, and, as well, the supervisor of the genetic counselor, is also hilarious. She delivers one superficially straightforward line about disappearing into her office so drily and to such effect that it brings the house down. She also does an absolutely intoxicating turn as the ape who, in one fell swoop, carries on an internal linguistic dialogue and manages the linguistic prods of the researchers with dismissive abandon. It’s a feat of interleaved monologue and totally captivating.
This curious play about the deepening process of conceiving life and carrying it forth while trying to understand its biologic, intellective and ultimately emotive force is rightly conceived by director Melia Bensussen as a heartfelt comedy, a romp of many characters hovering around a singular dilemma. Weaving together reason, whimsy and pathos, it deftly entertains while raising its themes artfully and pointedly.