TR Robertson — The world premiere of Robert Askins’ new play, “The Squirrels”, may alter the way you look at what you thought was just a sweet, innocent, cuddly creature. Askins, a Tony nominated playwright for the dark comedy “Hand to God”, once again challenges his audiences to question what is going on around us and to question the kind of world we have created, only this time he does it by using the world of squirrels. As we learn about “squirreldom”, we begin to see parallels with the world we currently live in, and it is not a pretty world.
“The Squirrels” is currently on stage at the Mandell Weiss Forum, La Jolla Playhouse. The premise of the story surrounds a mixed family of gray squirrels, led by Scurius, an older, rotund squirrel who both hoards and guards the catch of nuts. His wife, Mammalia, is a minimally, kind hearted squirrel, not quite set in her ways. Their daughter, Chordata, seems to be caught between following the way her family lives or changing the way things are done in the tree. This especially becomes a challenge for her when a hungry fox squirrel, named Carolinius, arrives at the center of the tree and asks her father for food for the squirrels living on the outside branches of the tree. Carolinius questions Scurius’s policies surrounding hoarding the nuts and Chordata begins to question her father as she falls for Carolinius. Mix in a scheming adopted fox squirrel, daughter of Scurius and Mammalia named Rodentia and an equally scheming and unscrupulous gray squirrel named Sciuridae, and the plot is set for a complete upheaval of the squirrel community. As all sides vie for control of the nuts and the tree, something has to give.
Photos by Jim Carmody
Along the way, this 90 minute, no intermission, play will build a plot, which at one moment seems almost like a soap opera and the next minute draws parallels with several Shakespearean plays. The play is political, it deals with racism and the rules we live under. It makes you think about the homeless problems we now face, as well as our economy of the haves and have nots, and, oh yes, it will have you occasionally laughing, but not before making you think about what you are laughing at. As with Askins “Hand to God”, it is not for the squeamish, unless you can handle squirrel violence.
Playing the obstinate Scurius and making his La Jolla Playhouse debut is Terence Archie. Candy Buckley plays Mammalia, Showing there can be a tender side to what is happening around her. The coy daughter, Chordata, is played by Lakisha May, also making her La Jolla Playhouse debut. The conniving Rodentia is played by Summer Spiro. Marcus Terrell Smith plays Carolinius with tremendous intensity and fervor. Smith is also a first time La Jolla Playhouse performer. Nominated for a Tony for his role in “Something Rotten”, Brad Oscar plays the traitorous Sciuridae and he occasionally slips out of this role as The Scientist who gives us more information than most have ever heard about squirrels and squirrel life. One such tid-bit I was unaware of was that squirrels will eat the young of other squirrels when food supplies are low. Each of their names is taken from the Latin nomenclature of squirrel genus and species. Non-named fox squirrels were played by Max Singer, Sidney Hill and Danielle E.B. Wineman.
The cast wore an abbreviated version of a squirrel outfit, mostly comprised of the mid-stomach to foot portion, with the tail of course. They were also trained in the variety of noises squirrels make, such as barking, cooing and mucking. Muck refers to squirrel love. Their tree was a massive, black steel structure, complete with extended limbs, walkways, stairs and a meeting area. There is also a secret area that will appear later in the play, you’ll have to see the play to find out what is hidden there.
“The Squirrels” is directed by Tony Award winning and La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley. His creative team consisted of Beowulf Boritt who designed the complex tree set and Paloma Young who designed the squirrel costumes. Tyler Micoleau handled lighting, Cricket S. Myers worked with sound, John Narun ran the projections the audience would see of squirrels in real life, J. Jared Jana designed Wigs, Hair and Make-up and James Newcomb was the Fight Director. Yes, there is squirrel fighting. The Stage Manager is Joshua Pilote.
At its premise is the question of just how animal like we are. Animals in the wild fight each day for survival. They seek shelter, they seek food, they propagate and they will do whatever it takes to get these. Are we just like them? Is our behavior and the society we have created based on this will to survive? Has our need to be the best, to achieve, to do more than just survive, driven us to the point of behaving like animals at times? Is this the point of the play, or is Askins simply giving us a play about his interpretation of squirrels? This will be for you to decide at this most unusual play.
As the audience left, I could hear people beginning to discuss what they had just seen. One young lady said, “It was funny until it made me sad”. Another person said, “I learned more about squirrels than I thought I ever would want to know”. It certainly was a play everyone will have an opinion about.
“The Squirrels” runs until July 8th at the Mandell Weiss Forum, La Jolla Playhouse. Tickets are available at www.LaJollaPlayhouse.org or call 858-550-1010. Next up for the La Jolla Playhouse will be the West Coast premiere of “queens”, by Martyna Majok who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “cost of Living”.