One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Leakey’s Ladies would have an ambitious
mission even if it weren’t an Off-Off-Broadway show playing the small Dixon
Place and with a limited budget. But Gretchen Van Lente’s look at three very
worthy women, with an experimental structure and a multimedia design that errs
on the side of the amateurish, bites off more than it seems to be able to chew.

Ladies is a triptych of short
plays, each written by a different female playwright, about the work done by
three well-known primatologists. Rachel Hoeffel
contributes the story of Dian Fossey, Crystal Skillman provides the bio of
Biruté Galdikas, and Erin Courtney gives us the Jane Goodall arc. The play
fuses the overlapping lives of these pioneers as they researched African
primates in the 1970s and 1980s under the aegis of philanthropist and mentor Louis
Leakey (in real life, these women were often referred to as “Leakey’s Angels”).

Van Lente’s production
is clumsy on several levels. One learns little of the obstacles these women had
to overcome, whether it be due to gender, money, politics or geographical
dislocation, and their struggles are reduced to one-note sacrifices, including
Goodall’s marital problems or Fossey’s myopic obsession with the gorillas she
studied—and either more or less should be made of Fossey’s still unsolved
murder. We also learn little of the women’s relationship with Leakey (played, a
bit anemically, by Scott Weber).

The plot is also
confusing, since events do not occur in chronological order. Van Lente transports
her audience back and forth several times, to minimal effect. She also fails to
take advantage of her own resources to help curtail such confusion. Visual
enhancements in a stage performance need to feel merited, but in Van Lente’s
production, they come off as gratuitous. The play’s video projection (courtesy
of James Walton) lies largely dormant during the show’s 85 minutes. What’s the
point of employing a screen if it’s only going to be as relevant as one of
those random karaoke videos? At the very least, superscripts giving the date
and location during each of the numerous temporal jumps would have helped.

Meanwhile, David
Valentine, who did the puppetry and mask work on Ladies
, uses several different
methods to portray the show’s animals. Sometimes actors wear primate masks or
costume pieces resembling a pelt, and other times he opts for puppet dolls to
resemble the primates. (The puppet animals feel more animated than members of
the cast.)

Of the actors, Amy
Carrigan acquits herself the best as Galdikas, injecting a spirit that never
relents even as the play itself hits a rut. Tatiana Pavela and Meghan Williams
have more difficulty navigating the play’s rocky terrain; their work feels a
bit more redundant, with no lessons learned along their characters’ interrupted
journeys. All of which is a shame; these angels deserve to fly.

Leakey’s Ladies

Through Feb. 4 at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie St. (betw. Delancey &
Rivington Sts.),; $16.