You know that overused saying: “You’ve never seen anything quite like it!”? I went to “The Animals and Children Took to the Streets,” a 70-minute performance piece at Studio Theatre that raises to a mesmerizing level the interplay on a stage of music, animation, live action and elements of a graphic novel.
And, well, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Avail yourself, please, of the opportunity to enter the parallel universe of 1927. That’s not a year, it’s a theater troupe. From some murky subterranean London laboratory, no doubt. And just as its offbeat name is reminiscent of something far removed from the routine nomenclature of show business, the group, making its maiden Washington journey, materializes in the figures of three protean actresses (and the voice of an actor) as a rare specimen of some exotic species.
Think of a Brechtian opera as a Saturday morning cartoon, with macabre seasoning by Edward Gorey and George Orwell, and you begin to get the gist of what 1927 is up to here in this explosion of dystopian magic. The piece, written and directed by one of the performers, Suzanne Andrade, and animated and designed by Paul Barritt, envelops you in its breathtaking aura of disturbance and black comedy. It’s the best bad trip you’re ever likely to experience.
The company’s visual style elevates the integration of film and live drama to its own distinct genre. The closest antecedent for me is “The Slug Bearers of Kayroll Island,” a 2008 off-Broadway musical by graphic novelist Ben Katchor and composer Mark Mulcahy whose evocative projections became a veritable character in the story. Natsu Onoda Power used animation originally and fascinatingly, too, in her piece at Studio earlier this year, “Astro Boy and the God of Comics,” but by contrast that was as much as anything in service of an educational adventure.
In “The Animals and Children,” the exquisitely refined film sequencing plays an even more dominant role, to the point that the human figures sometimes seem mere extensions of all of the two-dimensional images, rather than the other way around. This has a tendency to weigh down the narrative; despite the sustaining of an enigmatic reality by actresses Andrade, Esme Appleton and Lillian Henley, your eye drifts constantly to what’s going on up there on the three tall projection panels behind them.
So what’s it about? It’s about allowing yourself to ooze into 1927’s warped but somehow familiar universe, a place in which you might be conscious of the visage of Buster Keaton one minute, and the sensibility of Eddie Izzard the next. It’s set in the noir-est of city quarters, Red Herring Street, in the forbidden district of Bayou Mansions, a neighborhood of “flashers and Peeping Toms” and other assorted undesirables. The lullaby-soft narration over the speaker system is recited with such crispness that you feel a sense of well-being, even as the creepiest details of the story spill out.
Appearing at first in cut-out windows in the panels, the three actresses, their faces powdered white, begin to assume the story’s archetypal characters. They include the lonely caretaker of a squalid, roach-infested building —the animated crawling bugs perform a veritable show-long wall-climbing ballet — and the object of his affections, a young woman who takes up residence in the slum with her daughter, a miniature cartoon version of her. It turns out that Bayou Mansions is an especially lousy place to raise kids because they creep and cluster as menacingly as the roaches. And having even less patience for the tykes than they do for bugs, the adults of the district concoct a pest-control plan for them.
Henley’s eerie musical compositions, performed on piano, are atmospheric building blocks; they add to the certain unsettling tenseness of “The Animals and Children.” (The costumes by Appleton and Sarah Munro are clever canvasses unto themselves.) Thankfully, there’s also an easily accessed layer of wit that cuts through the production’s expressionistic heaviness. I particularly liked the fact that among the items for sale in the junk shop on Red Herring Street is an old VHS of the Olympic ice dancing gold medalists, Torvill and Dean.
I will admit to yawning a couple of times, as the show’s hypnotic effects escorted me a bit too languidly through the dark corners of Red Herring Street. By and large, though, the amazing dreamscapes illuminated by the actresses and their beautifully drawn co-stars allow “The Animals and Children” to act like triple shots of espresso to the imagination. 1927: it is a very good troupe.
Written and directed by Suzanne Andrade. Film, animation and set, Paul Barritt; music, Lillian Henley; costumes, Sarah Munro and Esme Appleton. With the voice of James Addie. About 70 minutes. Through July 1 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.
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