There are several ways to visit the zoo. You can look at the animals, at the people watching the animals, or at the people watching the people watching the animals. The Two Lights Theatre Ensemble’s new show gives us the full tour. In an original exploration of man’s relation with the animal world — which naturally includes the human world — Two Lights produces Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and David Mamet’s The Duck Variations. These two short plays, admirably deconstructed and welded back together by Sean Demers, are given a virtuoso performance by Demers and Graham Allen at the Portland Performing Arts Center’s Studio Theater.
BENCHED: Outside the asylum
In each of these two works from the modern masters, a pair of men in Central Park contemplates creatures and man, and man, the creature. For Mamet’s park fixtures Emil and George, the lens is ducks. In a series of conversations (or “variations,” if you will), they consider such common human concerns as mortality (“The duck too is doomed to die”), communion (“Nothing that lives can live alone”), and the Other (“The duck is in tune with nature.” “The duck is nature.”) The two Everyday Joe buddies loosely sing the praises and the tragedies of the duck and, thereby, of a larger, flightless creature, too.
Albee’s park duo, on the other hand, is almost unbearably taut, from the moment that the intense and precocious Jerry comes up behind square publishing exec Peter and announces, “I’ve been to the zoo.” Jerry, a stranger and a transient, proceeds to aggressively seduce feeble Peter into conversation, which includes the vicissitudes of Jerry’s squalid apartment building and Peter’s two-kid, two-parakeet upper-middle class existence; the saga of Jerry’s love/hate relations with his landlady’s monster dog; and, finally, the charged reason behind his trip to the zoo.
Two Lights has paired these two pieces smartly, and in doing so I would say has substantially improved both plays. I have trouble imagining, for example, how one would keep an uninterrupted show of the Variations from feeling like too much of a good thing. But Two Lights and Demers have served the Variations well in rendering them, instead, as punctuation and counterpoints. Broken up, they’re made whimsical, whereas a solid block of them could come off as obsessive. They also help pace the sometimes overwrought tension of Albee’s script. Demers has been deft in deconstructing the action of The Zoo Story, and we cut back to the duck musings at some poignant points of development between Jerry and Peter — the frightened intimacy of Peter about to reveal his name; Jerry, wry and ominous, on the brink of finally telling Peter why he went to the zoo. In shanghaiing us from these moments back to Emil and George, Two Lights gives us both a little respite and some extra time to mull over these two men, and the haunting fusion of wildness and civility between them.