For anyone who's ever loved an animal; for anyone who's ever taken care of something simultaneously helpless and challenging, if not deadly; for anyone who's ever listened to a guinea pig wheeping in its cage and wondered what the hell it thinks it's saying (because it seems awfully passionate); we have a play for you.
Loosely based on the true story of a pet chimpanzee named Travis who injured a Connecticut woman nearly fatally in 2009, Trevor is playwright Nick Jones' incredibly smart script, here placed in capable hands. Currently onstage at the Santa Fe Playhouse, this production doesn't have a weak link. That's quite a feat for a complex work that could easily stymie a small theater community.
Actress Marguerite Louise Scott is Sandra, a doting if eccentric widow whose country home features scribbles on the walls, a large cage in the yard and a roving adolescent chimp. Trevor, played by Evan Dalzell, speaks in perfectly good—and perhaps even haughty—English. He tells Sandra how he wants to get a job and is discouraged by his inability to get back into acting (he once starred in a pilot with Morgan Fairchild, after all), and laments discrimination against chimpanzees in the workplace.
Okay, that makes it sound trite and precious. It's not. Especially when we realize, when Sandra begins baby-talking Trevor and using rudimentary sign language to communicate, that she has no idea what he's saying. To her, all he's doing is making nonsense noise. Vice versa, Trevor doesn't understand Sandra except for select words or objects (Hollywood, coffee, wine, Morgan Fairchild), and watching them try to talk is both funny and frustrating in turn.
For example, when Trevor says eloquently that he'd like to send emails to his business contacts and get in touch with the Screen Actors Guild about his desire to get back into show business, Sandra smiles and coos sweetly: "Oh, you wanna say hellooooo to your friends on the compuuuuter?"
Simultaneously, though, Sandra's anthropomorphizing of her pet actually contains kernels of truth—a particularly funny device for anyone who's had to deal with pet owners in service settings. When apologizing for Trevor's increasingly aggressive behavior, she pleads: "He's frustrated! What he needs is a creative outlet!" Of course, without Trevor's insight, this would sound ridiculous. But with his insight, we know it is perhaps actually true.
Also an aid in the show's dramatic impact, rather than the childishness that could be inherent in a talking-animal trope, is Dalzell's subtle characterization as a chimp. Wearing overalls and a T-shirt, he could still pass for a human character. But his bowed legs, bare feet, doing everything with his knuckles and occasional flying leaps across the stage (seriously, they're shocking in their athleticism) keep him in the realm of apedom. Oliver, another chimp-actor that occasionally advises Trevor in dreams or hallucinations (played by RJ Henkel, who comically wears spats on his bare feet) employs similar characterization to nice effect.
This kind of script is incredibly difficult to perform, and these actors deserve commendation for delivering it without any perceptible hiccups. When two characters are "conversing" with lines that have absolutely no relation to each other, it takes just about forever to remember what comes next (if you ever do). But they pull it off, with virtually no dead air and a swift pace that evoked laughter and exasperated sighs alike in the audience.
A cast of characters moves in and out in side-plots around Sandra and Trevor, including flashbacks and fantasies featuring Fairchild herself (a very funny Isabel Madley) and a production assistant (Evan Galpert), a terrified neighbor who fears for her baby's safety (Veronica Everett) and a cop in charge of laying down some kind of law (Stephen Rommel). While each are strong, none of the side characters are a caricature, and the solid ensemble front presented by this cast serves the knotted story well.
This show is a particular triumph for Scott. A mainstay in the Santa Fe theater scene, particularly at the Santa Fe Playhouse, Scott is excellent at portraying goofy, comedic characters. She has done so many a time and to great success on this stage, and Trevor includes tons of laugh-out-loud moments. However, any time heretofore that Scott has been cast as a straight or less-wonky character, she's faltered—not based on her ability, in my estimation, but rather due to her tendency toward self-deprecation. She doesn't give her own natural grace enough credit.
But here, at last, Scott has taken charge of her ability to break our hearts. Her heartfelt dialogues with her beloved charge brought me to tears. We feel her breathlessness as she tries desperately to control him—but he can't possibly understand. And as he tries in vain to communicate with her, in Dalzell's often tender performance, we forgive Trevor's transgressions, though we know there's really only one way this is going to end up.
Director Monique Lacoste had her work cut out for her with this one. The sheer logistics of casting an ape, not to mention finding actors who can hold the duality of howling laughter and wrenching poignancy, was likely no easy feat. I imagine that weeks of table work went into the nuance and motivation of characters that can change on a dime.
Coincidentally, on the Sunday of opening weekend, Lacoste shared a story on Facebook that told a tale almost tailor-made for those considering Trevor: In 2010, a bunch of monkeys in Japan managed to escape a research center by using trees to catapult themselves over an electric fence. It's a story perhaps scary in its implications about the primates' problem-solving intelligence and desire for autonomy.
But the monkeys were easily lured back into the facility with peanuts.
How a creature can be so complex and simultaneously so simple applies to everyone here: to Trevor, of course, both potentially violent and enamored of his stuffed bunny—but also to the humans, whose love of each other, rules, success or their kin dictates their actions, sometimes to disastrous ends.