Writer-director-performer Andrade doesn’t think “Animals and Children” wound up quite as far outside the mainstream as intended. But unless you caught 1927’s debut, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” you’ve probably never witnessed anything like what Andrade and her equally hyphenated partners in crime — Esme Appleton, performer-costume designer; Lillian Henley, performer-pianist-composer; Paul Barritt, animator-illustrator-designer, and Jo Crowley, producer — are touring around the world.
Instead of traditional scenery, the show’s backdrop is three big screens onto which lurid, clever animations by Barritt are projected. Andrade, Henley and Appleton (ages 31, 29 and 32, respectively), faces slathered with white makeup, play every live-action part; the animals and children of the title are mostly portrayed by cartoons.
Fade in on the Bayou Mansions, a slum on the outskirts of a city that shimmers with wealth. Juvenile delinquents pillage and plunder, itching for an escape from their dead-end, squalid lives. Into the scene drops Agnes Eaves, played by Appleton, and her daughter, Evie, a bite-size animated version of her mother. Agnes tries to teach an art course for troubled kids, but her timing is terrible: A youth-led rebellion is on the rise against a government that wants to crush the nascent uprising by lobotomizing children with drug-laced gumdrops, which, Andrade said, are the show’s stand-in for Ritalin.
“We wanted to do something about children and the way children are often treated, or mistreated,” she said. “But we didn’t want to preach or be too moralistic.”
The play is hardly at risk of being called preachy. Filling out the cast of characters are thieves, a phalanx of cockroaches and a caretaker who couldn’t care less (a man, played by Andrade, loosely based on her “miserable ex-boyfriends with glasses and messy hair”).
Despite its old-timey piano soundtrack, “Animals and Children” seems distinctly modern, something that could have come into being only in the age of the mash-up. The group’s influences are swirled together, resulting in a production inspired by the music of Kurt Weill, the theatrical sensibility of Bertolt Brecht, the gory staging and cultlike following of the Grand Guignol in Paris (known as the Theater of Fear and Terror), the macabre humor in the stories and etchings of Edward Gorey, the aesthetics of graphic novels, and the early animations of Max Fleischer, including his cartoon-as-sex-symbol, Betty Boop.
The company takes its name from the era during which its inspirations thrived (specifically, the year “The Jazz Singer,” the first feature-length talkie, came out). It did not intend to be prescient. But if you had seen “Animals and Children” when it first opened, you could have read the future of London in its words like tea leaves.
“We made this [in 2010], and the London riots happened the following year,” Appleton said. “Suddenly our funny, little, quirky story had some weight to it.”
In the play, as in life, Appleton added, the middle class “can read about gang culture in the papers,” and, like Daisy and Tom Buchanan before them, “retreat back into their money or their vast carelessness.” “But as soon as that gang culture comes into their world, they care.”
Paradoxically, Henley pointed out, “We’re playing this [production] in middle-class theaters.” But the three women acknowledged that their perspective is similar to that of most audience members.
“I think where we side is with Agnes Eaves,” Andrade said. “That guilty, middle class, ‘I really want to help, I really want to do something, but I don’t quite know how to engage.’ ”
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets
Through Sunday at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org.