In the squalid, enticing wonderland the British theater company 1927 conjures up in The Animals and Children Took to the Streets—currently playing at Studio Theatre—cockroaches clamber over walls, eyepatch-wearing children run rings around their feckless parents, and unlucky Jehovah’s Witnesses fall victim to a sweet-looking old lady with a murderous streak. Part Edward Gorey, part Amelie, part manifesto, the play wraps themes of social injustice and chronic deprivation in a gorgeous spun-sugar concoction, leaving you with only the faintest of notions that you’ve just been informed as well as entertained.
Fusing the dark, charming animations of Paul Barritt with live performances by writer/director Suzanne Andrade, Esme Appleton, and musician Lillian Henley, Animals creates a vivid world of dysfunction in an unnamed city where wealth is abundant and society revolves around “big business, big banks, and art with a capital ‘ah.’” But just to the east of this capitalist paradise lies an underprivileged slum called the Bayou, inhabited by criminals, racists, prostitutes, junkies, and an underclass of feral, uncontrollable children. The women wear leopard print and mutter grimly about the chaos around them, insects and lizards run amok, and a one-way ticket out costs £777.77—a lifetime’s worth of savings for most residents.
Well-meaning do-gooder Agnes Eaves (Appleton) reads about the Bayou in the newspapers, and can’t sleep for worrying about it. With her animated daughter Evie (a sweet, silent moppet in a stripy red dress), Agnes moves to a bug-infested apartment in the Bayou Mansions, aiming to offer unconditional love and macaroni art classes to the ruffian children. Her plans are mostly unsuccessful—the children run amok, leaving her and Evie covered in dried lentils and PVA glue. Zelda (also played by Appleton), the eyepatch-sporting daughter of the Bayou’s Mother Courage, aims to lead the children in a revolution with a manifesto demanding “Better living conditions, a decent education, and an Xbox.” But her reign of chaos is interrupted when the gang kidnaps the mayor’s cat, forcing him to finally do something about all the Bayou brats.
Animal’s three cast members portray a cornucopia of characters, with cofounder Andrade serving as the dour narrator. The basic set consists of three white screens with windows and a variety of moving pieces—musician Henley sits to the right, singing and playing piano, accordion, and percussion to create a spirited, silent-movie-inspired soundtrack. Andrade removes her leopard-print headdress and reveals a shock of wild, spiky hair to play the lonely Bayou caretaker; Appleton jumps easily between portraying the plummy-voiced Agnes and the Eastern European Zelda, whose call to arms mentions the sadness of “vodka borscht tears.”
The show seems to inhabit a parallel multicultural universe—it could be set in the Paris banlieues, or the Russian housing blocks, or the New York tenements, but it also seems to heavily resemble London, whose own band of underprivileged youth took to the streets just last year (Animals originally debuted in 2010, an uneasy precursor to the 2011 riots). The dichotomy of wealth and poverty explored in the show is exaggerated, the company seems to suggest, but not by much. And the mayor’s dastardly plan, which (spoiler alert) involves drugging the children with an addictive medication hidden in gumdrops, is only a degree or two away from the ADHD meds prescribed to 3 million American kids. On stage, as the vans sweep children away, a musical box plays an eerie rendition of “A Spoonful of Sugar.” To say it’s discomfiting is an understatement.
Still, the political narrative of the show is an undercurrent to the spectacular animations on display, which create worlds that are both vibrant and morose. The caretaker, a solipsistic thinker who falls for Agnes, has a lonely existence, writing fatalistically about his gloomy days in his diary. But at night, as he lays in bed, Barritt reveals his dreams to the audience: a whirling kaleidoscope of smiling faces and far-off places. Even in hell, 1927 suggests, we still dare to dream.
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets by 1927 is at Studio Theatre through July 1. Running time is 70 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($30 to $65) are available via Studio’s website.