Theater Review: Uncommon Summer Theater — “Animals Out of Paper”

Deftly directed by May Adrales, aided by sensitive sound, lighting, and costume design, Animals Out of Paper is exciting summer theater.

Animals Out of Paper by Rajiv Joseph. Directed by May Adrales. Staged by Chester Theatre Company at Chester Town Hall, Chester, MA, through July 15.

By Helen Epstein.

A scene from the Chester Theatre Company’s staging of ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER. Elizabeth Rich (Ilana) and Vandit Bhatt (Suresh). Photo by Rick Teller.

It’s rare that I leave a theater late at night feeling as though I’ve had a fully satisfying meal, but that’s how I and my three companions felt last night leaving the Chester Theatre. Chester Theatre Company (CTC) is the tiny, non-commercial group that operates out of a Town Hall on the eastern edge of the Berkshires. If you’ve never attended one of their productions, make plans to go this summer.

Over eight weeks, CTC is featuring four plays—all “Uncommon Love Stories”—by contemporary playwrights. Years of attending the CTC have led me to expect them to be interesting at the very least and fascinating at best. Artistic director Byam Stevens has great taste and does wonders with a fraction of the budget of more mainstream Berkshire theaters. I’m indebted to CTC for introducing me to Arlene Hutton’s haunting Nibroc Trilogy; her Running will play in August.

Rajiv Joseph (born in Cleveland, Ohio 1974) was a new name to us although his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was produced on Broadway in 2011. Animals Out of Paper, a two-act, three-character tragicomedy, was first produced at New York’s Second Stage Theatre in 2008. Its excellent, unpredictable, and hard to summarize script is the work of a craftsman with an acute ear for dialogue and an attractively quirky sensibility. Stevens has matched this playwright with a perfectly attuned director and design team and three fascinating actors who leave you pondering their personalities and conflicts long after their last lines. A small collection of intricately folded origami pieces are on exhibit in the lobby.

Animals Out of Paper is set somewhere near Boston right now. Its anti-heroine is Ilana Andrews, a passionate and depressed, world-famous origami artist and author of the essays “Folding What I Lost,” whose husband and dog have abandoned her. Her foils are nerdy, high school math teacher and treasurer of AO (American Origami) Andy Froling and Suresh, a math whiz and hip-hop addict who calls his teacher Fro Dog and whose mother has recently been killed in a sudden, hit-and-run bus accident.

This unconventional cast performs on an unconventional set. Three translucent cloth panels divide the stage into suggestions of spaces here in America and Japan. The wooden furniture—a workbench, a table, two chairs—evoke the geometry of Mondrian canvases with their regular right angles. The floor, however, is a mess, littered with sheets of paper and small, delicate pieces of origami. Above it all, an enormous, white origami hawk hovers in the air like a vulture.

Trauma vs. Recovery, as well as Order vs. Chaos, is clearly in the air, and when Andy rings Ilana’s buzzer, that theme is joined by Optimism vs. Despair. Frumpy Ilana is in her bathrobe; she has not left her house for two months, disconnected her phone, stopped reading her mail. Andy’s excuse for barging in is ostensibly to collect her delinquent dues ($25) to AO. But it becomes clear as the high school teacher whips out and reads from his long-kept journal of “Blessings” ( 7,904) that he is both besotted with Ilana and thinks she’d help Suresh survive the loss of his mother. Andy has introduced his student to origami, but Suresh has already surpassed the expertise of his teacher

A scene from the Chester Theatre Company’s production of ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER. Elizabeth Rich (Ilana) and Chad Hoeppner (Andy). Photo by Rick Teller.

These three wonderfully fresh characters interact in wacky and unexpected ways. “I don’t fucking tutor,” Ilana initially tells Andy. “Take him to MIT—They’ve got an origami club.” But she agrees to take Suresh on as an apprentice, even takes him with her to Japan where he brings the assembled artists to tears with his folding.

It’s hard to take your eyes off these three compelling actors. Elizabeth Rich, new to CTC, has a commanding voice, presence, and range yet succeeds at conveying Ilana’s utter desolation at being abandoned by her partner and her slow recovery from it. Chad Hoeppner, whose work I’ve admired before on this stage, made for a convincing and moving Fro Dog, whose habits and ways of being fall just short of Asberger’s Syndrome. And Vandit Bhatt is terrific as Suresh, with just the right blend of confusion, defiance, and vulnerability of a high school senior.

At intermission you have absolutely no idea what will unfold in the second act, nor how these three will end up.

Deftly directed by May Adrales, aided by sensitive sound, lighting, and costume design, Animals Out of Paper is exciting summer theater. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Helen Epstein is a cultural journalist and author of the books Children of the Holocaust and Joe Papp: An American Life.

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