There is an infamous poem by Robert Frost about taking the path less traveled by- “and that has made all the difference.” As I sit here waiting for this play I know nothing about, I am thinking maybe this is one of those less traveled by paths. As the director Sarah Jacklin skips to the front of the stage, she says, “thanks for supporting underground theater in Baltimore.” And I think, yup, this is a play and path less worn than others.
“Trial in the Woods” is a new play by Stephanie Barber that has each actor depicting different animals. It opens with a yoga class, led by Bear Chondra. All the animals are participating and finding their inner Zen when there is an attack. An otter kills a young wolf named Pennstin. The rest of the play is a courtroom drama with animals as defendants, judges, prosecutors and witnesses deciding the fate of the killer vs. prey and if there is justice for such an act. The courtroom drama is interrupted by short videos by Miles Engel-Hawbecker that show the television coverage of the trial for a home spectator. The play gives the audience quite a bit to think about in terms of how we argue and defend ourselves in our modern society.
A term used in English courses everywhere is personification, where human attributes are put onto inhuman things (such as animals). But a more obscure term is anthropomorphism, where animal qualities are shifted and put on humans (i.e. describing humans in terms of animal behaviors and/or descriptions). That is the term that resonated with me throughout the play. Through each animal I saw a stereotype of human behavior, something we would associate and stereotype for some animals. For example, the young deer in the end is a hippy trippy girl with ADHD, and the turtle is a stoner surfer, evoking Disney images of Crush. There’s an indignant fox, a promiscuous owl, and down-to-earth bison. You get the idea.
The trial is presided over by Dave Iden as Judge Bodon Boar. His pink attire and powdered wig set the standard for the suggestion of animal without putting on a full costume. Costumes and set were credited to the director to- apparently a jack of all trades- Sarah Jacklin. Iden is comical and swayed by the opinions and emotions of those on the witness stand, like any good human judge would be as well. His snort laughs and excuses for recesses are classic comedic farce. This must be a fun production to participate in. Regrettably there is no air conditioning in the Mercury Theater space. The night I attended it was soupy- hot and humid- and many actors were sweating profusely. I felt bad for them- the space needed more than just fans.
Emily Hall plays Defense Attorney Lynx who has the unfortunate job of wrangling animals into cooperating on the stand. The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind. Some animals are more cooperative than others, but the overview of the evening is that some cannot overcome their own outlandish behaviors to sit and answer questions in a trial. Her snippy counterpart was Connor Kizer as Defense Squirrel S. with an impressive tail and suit. The two squabble as if they are in a courtroom, and more than any others tend to blur the line and appear more human than animal at moments when the trial is most intense.
Mika Nakano has the task of an attack in the beginning as Ovelia Otter, then sitting through the entire play as a criminal on trial and refraining from comment. She has a moment at the end, but for the majority has to quietly brood and allow her facial expressions to confer her concerns. Isa Leal pulls double duty as the victim of the crime, and then as the flirty and flighty Ms. Harwood Owl. Her testimony is the funniest of the evening- with her deviations, distractions, and constant rubbing of the leg of Judge Bodon Boar.
The comedic standout of the evening though is Dominic Gladden as Zinnia Snake. His performance in the video broadcast is hilarious with the extended sssss of a hissing snake. And his testimony when on the stand is equally salty. His demeanor, movements and slithering hands, and layered shirt patterns make him exceptional.
The set is simple, with a courtroom and witness stand and jury box. The seating for the audience is somewhat squished into a small space, I choose to sit on the raised platform on the left of the space, but often the box “shook” and I wondered about the stability of the seating. The set design is not particularly noteworthy- if anything it looks a bit after-thought-ish.
The masks are tribute to Jacob Zbawa and are fascinating in style and construction but the have unfortunate side effect of making it hard to hear the person speaking while wearing it. Perhaps that is why as the play progresses, they often take it off and hold it beside them. The opening scene is great but I lost half of what Bear Chondra was saying due to his muffled voice through the mask. I liked the costumes better that suggested an animal without the use of a mask.
The play is a strange and trippy journey through a trial that has been depicted by animals. Is it to remind humans that we are also creatures who succumb to our animalistic nature? That we too often stereotype unwittingly? Is it to see how divided our society has become and how even when boiled down to basics, we cannot agree on a solvent point? I left with lots to think about.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? This is a piece of underground theater worth exploring. It isn’t without a few flaws, but the script, performances, and analysis are all thought-provoking. Animals depicting the lesser points of human society is a compelling evening that lends itself to looking long and hard at yourself in the mirror. Get out of your comfort zone and go explore the funkier edges of Baltimore’s arts community. (I)
90 minutes with no intermission. Running at Mercury Theater through June 24th.