Reviews

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

Betsy Kim
Tatiana Pavela (Dian Fossey), Meghan Williams (Jane Goodall), Scott Weber (Louis Leakey), Amy Carrigan (Biruté Galdikas)
Photo Credits: Shell Sheddy

In addition to reviving interest in Leakey and his researchers' work, this production is particularly inviting because of its uncommon storytelling vehicles.

Leakey's Ladies

City: New York
Venue: Dixon Place

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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