A show where all the characters are squirrels? Yes. Playwright Robert Askins puts a warning in the mouth of the scientist who opens the show: “Buckle up, wise patron of the arts. And you should. Because this cleverly written, brilliantly acted and perfectly executed production sends the audience on a wild ride. It is a breathtaking, haunting and very enjoyable theatrical evening. About… squirrels.
Let’s put that aside right off the bat: everyone wears tails, chitters, and purrs, and holds their front legs (sorry, arms) like a squirrel would. But they wear normal clothes, speak English, and have (to varying degrees) a clear view of their world. Which is, for those of us who wish to make the connection, contemporary America in a funhouse mirror. Or, in fact, a hollow tree.
We meet Sciurus, a usually good-hearted patriarchal gray squirrel with memory issues, played with affable grace by Vince Petronio. It’s all about the existing social order, which in squirrel terms, stores as many nuts as possible for the winter and takes care of the family first. His wife, Mammalia, puts up with his idiosyncrasies and tries to stop him from doing something stupid. MJ Daly does a stellar job as the matriarch, turning in a highly nuanced performance in a role that ranges from brilliant domestic pun to very extreme moments as the crimes of terminal capitalism come home.
Their daughter, Chordata (you’ll probably understand that all character names are derived from Latin species taxonomy) is in love with a red squirrel, Carolinensis. Jessie March is utterly charming, playing Chordata with the sincere naivety of all teenagers. Omar Laguerre-Lewis is totally convincing in the role of the idealistic “red” squirrel (You will have understood it later when he puts on a beret…) torn between love for Chordata and the hunger of his comrades, starving by Sciurus’ overzealous hoarding of nuts.
Their other adopted daughter is a red squirrel named Rodentia. Val Westgate delivers a moving performance as a needy, flirtatious girl driven by self-interest.
Add to the mix a sneaky gray named Sciuridae, played with gusto and devious Machiavellian tricks by Joe Henderson (who also serves as the frame tale scientist). Henderson hits just the right notes as a manipulative opportunist, to make the tree tall again – for grey squirrels. He plays on Sciurus’ pride and insecurity to create a rift between gray and red that spirals out of control. To say more about the plot would be to say too much – this is a show you have to see to truly appreciate it.
If that sounds over-determined and weighty, it’s anything but. The entire cast is absolutely spot-on, and you’ll forget there’s anything odd about their costumes or turns of phrase from the world of squirrels (their lair is a “drey”, they make sounds of affection “muk muk muk,” their metaphors are, well, bonkers.) The dialogue is razor sharp and full of dark comic energy, all perfectly delivered. Even the largely silent ensemble musicians – Brian Kozak, Brayden Fanti, Jared Nobrega – are totally on the beat.
Director Mark Peckham did a superb job of setting the right tone; it’s a script that could easily slip into farce or meta-theatre, but not here. Every actor is totally engaged and plays their part with an unconscious naturalism that completely sells the premise. Exceptional leadership.
And the look of the show is gorgeous. Trevor Elliot’s impressionistic, angular set provides a rich backdrop that suggests a world inside a tree without being representational. And the movements of the set at the end of the show are powerful. So does the use of throws, which are brilliantly integrated – and devastatingly executed. There are rhythm effects – you’ll know when you see them – that are jaw-dropping. Kudos to the technical team.
“We will bite, claw and scratch until today feels like yesterday,” Sciurus says in a moment of maniacal determination to fight off the upstart reds. You’ll recognize many of today’s world’s problems in this hairy little dark comedy, all the more visible in their tragic banality (Fighting for nuts? Surely we humans would never be so insensitive and scheming on questions of economics and survival…) It’s a show filled with solid performances and beautifully crafted theatrical moments. Highly recommended.
Squirrels by Robert Askins, directed by Mark Peckham. Burbage Theater Company, 59 Blackstone Ave, Pawtucket, RI. Tickets $27/$17 Student, available at (401) 484-0355 or https://www.burbagetheatre.org/. Performances April 29-May 13. Fri-Sat April 29,30, May 6,7,13,14 8 p.m., Sunday May 1,8,15 2 p.m. Mask and proof of vaccination/negative test required.