The delightful oddness of Mabou Mines’s theatrical imagination has been one of their greatest assets. Even in the company of other avant-garde ensembles, they seem a little strange. It’s not just the wacky grace of the performers (though God knows founding member Ruth Maleczech could write the book), but the way each offering is a sui generis phenomenon. From the cross-gendered version of Lear to the marionette-filled enchantment of Peter and Wendy, their productions have transformed the stage into a three-dimensional canvas of unusually precocious, childlike wonder.
Animal Magnetism, the group’s latest foray into the world of “live animation,” mixes hand-drawn video illustrations with living, breathing cartoon characters—though Disney won’t be signing Mabou Mines for their next flick. The rabid sex alone—between Cherry (Clove Galilee), a hairy monkey with designs on becoming a movie star, and Tin Tin (Sean Runnette), a rhino racketeer who’s not above double-crossing his own species for a buck—would ruin any chance for a G rating. Add the fact that this intimate congress takes place while the two beasts are suspended in midair—well, leave it to director Lee Breuer to choreograph an erotic circus in wildlife drag.
First the good news. Not enough praise can be heaped on Susan Tsu’s marvelous costumes, which have just enough feral reality to startle without becoming National Geographic photo ops. They are endowed with life by two game actors, one of whom is clearly unafraid to make a randy monkey of herself while the other enjoys wallowing in the underworld mud. Galilee adopts a hilarious stuttering squawk; Runnette answers in a menacing Arnold Schwarzenegger dialect. Much of the conversation is pure animal lust, punctuated by brief work-related phone calls—Cherry to her movie producer and temp job, Tin Tin to the black-market distributors who are counting on him one last time to transport an aphrodisiac shipment of bloody rhino horns.
This being Mabou Mines, the production is a musical—not your typical Broadway kind, of course, but a dramatic fantasia with a two-and-a-half-piece orchestra (strings, reeds, and an extra hand for percussion and sound effects). Eve Beglarian’s nifty compositions range from Louis Armstrong jazz to lush classical-style underscoring, while a few numbers, such as “Make My Monkey Shine,” perfectly capture the galloping spring-fever tone. The dancing is aerial, with the actors flying on ropes that allow for all kinds of butterfly shenanigans (though, given their characters’ proclivities, birds and bees might be more apt).
Manuel Lutgenhorst’s entrancing production design creates a makeshift jungle. Scattered ferns drape across video monitors, which play Judson Wright’s homemade cartoons. The images have a hokey comic-strip appeal that tries not so much to duplicate what the actors perform as to sketch in fragments of narrative.
With so much to love, it’s disappointing to report that the overall effect is ultimately one of frustration. Terry O’Reilly’s script has neither the wit nor the rhythm of the other production elements. Its stalling plot and leaden banter are not so much rescued as mitigated by the high level of artistry otherwise on display. O’Reilly seems to be aiming at both a postmodern critique of capitalism and a torridly melodramatic love story. He misses badly, twice.
One can only hope that someone at Mabou Mines comes up with a more compelling scenario for such winning creatures as Cherry and Tin Tin. Not only do they deserve better, but their impressively staged tale provokes the wish for a more inspired second adventure.