Thursday, September 24, 2020
    Play Theater Erika Phoebus on Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie

    Erika Phoebus on Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie


    Photo by Ben Arons Photography; Full company photographed

    Who’s parents did call on the help of America’s favorite daytime television programs to help raise us kids to fully functioning adults? Those friendly faces on Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street perhaps acting as co-parents or a favorite babysitter at certain times? They certainly did in my household.

    Coming out of a critically acclaimed run of Miles for Mary at Playwright’s Horizon early last year, The Mad Ones now brings us their newest devised development – Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, a razor-sharp societal examination through the lens of a focus group for a beloved children’s television show, “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie.”

    Set in the late 1970s, six parents sit around a table amidst name tags and Styrofoam cups of cheap coffee. The community center room (designed by You-Shin Chen and Laura Jellinek) perfectly presents the borderline dreary mundaneness of such recreational public spaces as the focus group leader, Dale (Brad Heberlee), begins rattling off questions in pursuit of data to help the producers of “Mrs. Murray’s…” to choose between two spinoff series: “Candace’s Cabinet” or “Teddy’s Treehouse.”

    Jim (Marc Bovino), Dale’s silent assistant, scrambles to scribble the participating parent’s responses on a blackboard in the background, all while mysteriously wearing a sling. The parents rattle off impressions and opinions of the show, both through their own eyes and through their children’s. The parents (played by Phillip James Brannon, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, Carmen M. Herlihy, January LaVoy and Stephanie Wright Thompson) seem to be well representative of young American family structures and quickly establish a friendly rapport as they banter back and forth about their home lives and children.

    As the discussion progresses from Mrs. Murray’s impact to the debate between the two spin-offs, differences begin to feel somewhat personal, alliances form, and the foundation of this micro-community begins to waver as underlying racial and gender profiling and biases begin to surface. Behaviors arise that we would easily identify today as mansplaining, fragile and toxic masculinity, and “color blindness” fostering inequality. White male perception of ownership over a public/social space is piercingly on display when Roger (Joe Curnutte) becomes sensitive around his daughter’s favorite character, Candace (a bunny perceived by the group as white), is thought to be “whiney.” Relying on condescension and the creation of discomfort as he demeaningly snaps at a playfully teasing Goria (Stephanie Wright Thompson). When he proceeds to grab the leg of Cici (January LaVoy), who refuses to cower to his inherited perception of dominance, it’s hard not to quietly snicker, in spite of the palpable tension, at his entitled sense of social power being threatened by a group of televised puppets.

    It is a play of imperfect, socially conditioned beings raising imperfect, socially conditioned beings. The fact that no grand theatrical climax is arrived upon makes this piece an even more valuably intoxicating examination of cultural structures that have brought us to the reality we live in today. Instead of working to an ultimate climax in dramatic action as in a traditionally masculine structure, it ebbs and flows from moment to moment. Lila Neugebauer directs with such piercing precision creating a world where the things that go unsaid are where the ultimate truths lie. It is this astounding attention to detail devised by a brilliant group of artists that creates such a thrilling ride.

    Ars Nova Presents
    created by The Mad Ones and Phillip James Brannon, Brad Heberlee, Carmen M. Herlihy, and January LaVoy
    directed by Lila Neugebauger

    Jim – Marc Bocino
    Ernest – Phillip James Brannon
    Roger – Joe Curnutte
    Wayne – Michael Balto
    Dale – Brad Heberlee
    June – Carmen M. Herlihy
    Celeste “Cici” – January LaVoy
    Gloria – Stephanie Wright Thompson

    Scenic Design – You-Shin Chen & Laura Jellinek
    Costume Design – Ásta Bennie Hostetter
    Lighting Design – Mike Inwood
    Sound Design – Stowe Nelson
    Prop Design – Emmie Finckel & Noah Mease
    Wig & Makeup Design – Algreda “Fre” Howard/Faces By Fre, LLC
    Composer – Justin Ellington
    Lyricist – Michael Dalto
    Core Artistic Collaborator – Raja Feather Kelly
    Dramaturg – Sarah Lunnie
    Casting Consultant – Lauren Port
    Production Stage Manager – John C. Moore
    Assistant Stage Manager – Bryan Bauer

    Through May 11, 2019
    Monday-Wednesdays @ 7pm; Thursday & Fridays @ 8pm; Saturdays @ 3pm & 8pm; *April 23 & 24 @ 8pm

    Ars Nova at Greenwich House (27 Barrow St)
    Tickets: $35 and up; 212-352-3101

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