Theater Review: “The Animals and Children Took to the Streets” at Studio Theatre

Visiting company 1927 offers a gorgeously unsettling, darkly fantastic spectacle.
Esme Appleton in The Animals and Children Took to the Streets. Photograph courtesy of 1927.
Esme Appleton in The Animals and Children Took to the Streets. Photograph courtesy of 1927.

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.

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