Don’t Pet the Zookeeper, the newest show from the smart and adventurous folks at Rising Phoenix Rep, is a study in paradox. It is funny and it is sad; it is darkly satirical but at its heart it believes in something approaching pure and ideal love. It makes for a fascinating, entertaining, and sometimes challenging hour of early-evening theatre, and highlights the talents of a number of remarkable young artists.
It takes place in an office that—it is almost immediately apparent—is in no way affiliated with a zoo. Twyla, a young woman with a surprising background, has come here to apply for a job; Humphrey is conducting the interview. At first, the atmosphere is merely off-kilter, then surreal; Humphrey’s non-sequitor questions and, sometimes, Twyla’s unexpected replies are hilarious, the stuff of a Monty Python sketch:
TWYLA: What type of position am I being considered for?
HUMPHREY: No, beekeeper. Housekeeper. (Sure of it now) Zookeeper.
But things quickly get stranger, darker, more sinister. The play’s tone shifts into the blackest kind of absurdism as Humphrey starts singing about his magic shoes (and demonstrating how the shoes taught him to dance) and viciously beats up his receptionist (who, he says, likes it). Twyla reveals things about herself that lead us to understand that, despite all the evidence, she probably nevertheless is in the right place. And then the tables turn, the tone shifts even more dramatically, and Twyla and Humphrey find themselves in serious trouble. Possibly.
I hate to give away more; playwright Napoleon Ellsworth is good at surprising his audience, often with something joltingly funny but sometimes with stuff that’s just jolting. He says, in a program note, that one of the inspirations for Don’t Pet the Zookeeper was “how a person could possibly maintain his humanity in a situation as dehumanizing as, say, Abu Ghraib.” You will see how such a notion finds its way into a play that starts out as a silly job interview sketch if you see this show (and you should)….and how it can somehow give way to a musical finale that goes “We are animals in love.”
Director Jessica Bauman and producer Rising Phoenix Rep use all of the available space in the non-traditional Seventh Street Small Stage to great advantage. Rising Phoenix artistic director Daniel Talbott appears in a very small role (to strong effect); the rest of the cast is superb. Newcomer Jacob Murphy captures both of the potentially conflicting aspects of the enigmatic Receptionist and makes them seem organically part of the same rather brutal character. Julie Kline (who also choreographed the short dance sequences) similarly humanizes Twyla, making her very much someone that we care about, despite some of the facts we learn about her. As Humphrey, Denis Butkus gives a brilliant performance, one that takes in physical comedy, singing, dancing (the sequence with the magic shoes is priceless), and several shocking shifts in personality. Being able to witness such expert young actors in such intimate surroundings is one of the great gifts of Rising Phoenix’s aesthetic.
Don’t Pet the Zookeeper is upsetting in places yet somehow comforting; though you’ll leave the show (at about 7:10pm) primed for the rest of whatever your evening has in store for you, you’ll still be pondering and wondering about Ellsworth’s characters and what happens to them.
Review by Martin Denton · July 25, 2008