Leakey’s Ladies (Theater Review): Dixon Place – Off-Off Broadway

Video footage of the wild in Africa and Indonesia cuts to the busy streets of London in the 1970s. On-stage actors, people in the rush hour streets, fluidly transform into chimpanzees in Africa. Jane Goodall (Meghan Maureen Williams) scientifically describes their facial expressions and lists their observed sounds: the pant grunt, whimpering, the hoo, squeaks, the victim scream, the tantrum scream, barks, laughing… The actors convincingly mimic the specified primate behaviors with an uncanny accuracy for anyone, who has ever with fascination watched apes on TV, in films or at a zoo.

Leakey’s Ladies director Gretchen Van Lente conceived the idea of making this multi-disciplinary show with theatrical actors, puppets, video and music.

It tells the stories of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey (Tatiana Pavela) and Biruté Galdikas (Amy Carrigan) and their work for anthropologist and archaeologist, Louis Leakey (Scott Weber). Van Lente commissioned three playwrights, Erin Courtney, Rachel Hoeffel and Crystal Skillman, with each one assigned to create the separate characters of Goodall, Galdikas and Fossey, respectively. This process culminated in the portrayals of distinct personalities of the three women, who left the comfort, safety and familiarity of urban lifestyles to study primates in remote countries, in relative isolation. Van Lente said she is especially proud that more than twenty female theatre professionals made this production happen.

The play follows Goodall’s research of chimpanzees in Tanzania; Fossey’s work with gorillas in Rwanda; and Galdikas’s studies of orangutans in Borneo. It simultaneously traces the women’s personal lives and relationships.

For Van Lente, a scene at a gorilla’s funeral crystallizes the play’s central intent. Poachers murdered Fossey’s favorite gorilla, who died trying to protect his family group.

Dian (Tatiana Pavela) with gorilla

“[Dian] says, ‘You have to ask yourself, what would you sacrifice to save your family?’ I think this sums up the play for me. These ladies felt so strongly that these apes were their family — our family — that they were willing to sacrifice their own human relationships, their own children, their own well-being and livelihood to keep them safe. And I want people to know that. I want them to think about and consider that this is how important the great apes are. They are us. Watching them get slaughtered and fade away is not OK; and that it was pioneering women who made it happen, or were brave enough to begin to make a change in the world. People need to know that,” said Van Lente.

The behavioral descriptions of the animals have the familiar ring of social workers’ case studies. Goodall describes a chimpanzee, Passion, who “has no instinct as a mother,” who drops and drags her baby. “She is awkward in groups and spends much of her time, alone”. Her behavior strangely echoes that of a human sociopath.

Jane (Meghan Williams) with Flint

Another baby chimp, Flint, is overly attached to his mother and continues to sleep with her, well beyond the normal age of other chimps. When Flint’s mother tries to mate with adult males, Flint interferes, competing for her attention.

Today, the Leakey Foundation’s stated mission is to increase scientific knowledge, education, and public understanding of human origins, evolution, behavior, and survival. Leakey believed the past shows that humans “all have a common origin and that our differences in race, colour and creed are only superficial”.

In addition to reviving interest in Leakey and his researchers’ work, this production is particularly inviting because of its uncommon storytelling vehicles. A two-tier stage and scaffolding create mountainous scenes with imaginary cliffs, on different planes. The setup also dramatizes conversations crossing continents, time and memories.

Biruté (Amy Carrigan) and orangutan

Actors in animal costumes and masks, and puppeteers vividly bring primates to life, with actions that show parallels between apes and humans. Skillful movements of dolls and puppets animate similar behaviors, flowing between apes and people. Original music helps set the tone for each of the researchers’ personalities. Shadow puppetry visually weaves an Indonesian tradition into the storyline. It also foreshadows danger, and describes Fossey’s violent murder, with the silhouette of a machete and a lighted sheet that flickers red.

The play has an experimental feel to it. Audiences most likely will have preconceived impressions of the main characters from textbooks, National Geographic documentaries, newsreels and films (such as Gorillas in the Mist). In such larger-than-life, legendary roles, the actors do not fully command the stage with the presence of compelling, seasoned performers.

While highly respectful of the researchers, the script downplays the heart-wrenching aspects of their personal lives. The play quickly drives past any overwhelming emotional devastation, which normally would accompany collapses of marriages, loss in child custody, infidelity and broken love affairs. These life events appear act more as factual, chronological markers, in biographical outlines.

Nonetheless, this production exemplifies the essential bricks and mortar of creative New York. A November 14, 2010 Crain’s New York Business article, “Artists Fleeing the City”, noted how, due to high rents, New York is losing its innovative, artistic talent. “Industry experts worry that New York will become a place where art is presented but not made, turning the city into an institutionalized sort of [Disneyland]. One arts executive says it could become ‘a Washington, D.C.,’ a sterile, planned city with a number of cultural institutions but few artists — certainly not a place known as a birthplace for new cultural ideas and trends” wrote reporter Miriam Kreinin Souccar.

Battling a real estate industry, in trying to preserve one of New York City’s most cherished strengths, Dixon Place serves as a creative laboratory for original works of theatre, dance and literature. It maintains an open submission policy but only accepts submissions from artists based in the New York City area. Leakey’s Ladies is filled with information, and has something original to show and tell. It deserves New Yorkers’ attention and support.

Leakey’s Ladies runs through February 4 at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie Street in New York. Tickets: $16 in advance, $20 at the door, $12 students and seniors. For more information, please visit www.dixonplace.org, (212) 219-0736.