What’s that ape doing in the theatre? With a couple recent exceptions (the recent off-Broadway musical King Kong, the anticipated on-Broadway musical King Kong, and a controversial cameo in Cabaret), a gorilla in the theatre suggests Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (recently performed at the Ballard Underground). In O’Neill’s play, an earthy laborer goes on a self-destructive search for place in a world that rejects him as an animal.
Madeline George’s Precious Little (at 11th Ave’s Annex through August 31st) takes us on a journey that is as philosophical as that in The Hairy Ape, but the stakes are more personal. This touching script gets a good production that could be even stronger with better work from director and cast.
Precious Little centers on Brodie (Sarah Papineau), a pregnant 42-year-old lesbian linguist who undergoes amniocentesis and copes with the consequences. The difficult choices she faces are all the more poignant in the context of her research. The work involves documenting a moribund language by recording one of its last remaining speakers (Mary Murfin Bayley). Complicating this research is Brodie’s assistant (Taryn Pearce), with whom she’s having an affair, and the research subject’s daughter (Pearce again), who is fiercely protective of her mother.
Precious Little deals less with our place in the world than with our inability to convey our sense of place. Communication is stymied in myriad ways: across language barriers, through time and trauma, by the dance of an ill-fated affair, or filtered by an ultrasound image of a fetus “waving” at her mother.
George also gives us problematic communication in the most quotidian circumstances. A greenhorn genetics consultant (Pearce) unknowingly dehumanizes and patronizes her client. A researcher steamrolls over the daughter of her subject. Through all this fumbling for understanding, it is the place of parent and child and the ways we care for one another that provide the subject; the most challenging communication is love.
Bayley and Papineau perform with depth and strong emotional investment. Bayley is riveting as the gorilla without hairy costuming or mask. She is simply quite still and centered with an unintellectual pensiveness.
There is a consistency to the multiple roles assigned to Bayley and Pearce. Bayley takes on characters who are relegated to silence and find non-verbal and indirect ways to communicate. Pearce has the unenviable task of playing brash, grating characters who don’t listen. That she fails to find positive motivations for any of these characters is a detriment to the production. Worse, there is zero chemistry between Pearce, as the grad student, and Papineau.
Sets are simple and efficient, yet the set and costume changes take too long and only the final transition successfully integrates the transition with the characters and their emotional journeys. Katherine Karaus’s direction is uneven in the scenes as well with a couple of botched moments standing out from an otherwise strong production
So what does this have to do with a gorilla? In the end of O’Neill’s play, his anti-hero is drawn to an ape exhibit in a zoo, and the denouement finds him entering the exhibit with catastrophic results. Precious Little asks hard questions that are as specific as they are universal. George leaves the specific questions unanswered and wraps the philosophical side in the warm embrace of that elusive human connection.