Creature Discomforts

Drawing an indistinct parallel between a 10th-century Islamic fable and modern politics

There are few graduates of MFA acting programs in this country who haven't, at some point during their education, been forced to spend a day at the zoo. Staring at animals in cages and then attempting to mimic them in front of classmates — who then try to decide whether they're in the company of a marmoset, a guinea fowl, or a sloth — has become so fundamental a component of an actor's training that you'd think the only roles available to theater studies graduates were in The Lion King or Cats.

The ensemble members in Golden Thread's Island of Animals have obviously done their homework: There are more imaginatively depicted critters in Hafiz Karmali's adaptation of the 10th-century Islamic fable The Case of the Animals Versus Man Before the King of the Jinn than can be seen in a week's viewing of the Discovery Channel. Over three acts, the performers transform themselves into creatures large and small, mythical and real, from the tiniest gnat to the most ferocious dragon. Every animal in the story has a defined personality, conveyed through detailed physicality. In the hunt scene near the start of the play, ensemble members imbue charging horses with the marked restlessness and fretfulness of beasts in captivity. In Act Two, Joseph Estlack's lion (also known as King of the Beasts of Prey) fumes with impatience at his incompetent followers. Meanwhile, the role of the peacock, danced by Drea Bernardi in a shimmering floor-length skirt, matches preening vanity with grace.

Despite these anthropomorphic wonders, the fauna aren't merely supposed to look cute, provide humor, or show off the performers' talents. As in many works of literature and art featuring nonhuman characters (from the Bible's proverbial flock to the rebellious livestock in George Orwell's Animal Farm), they're meant to serve a symbolic purpose, too. The section of the Rasa'il — a massive encyclopedia of Islamic thought created by a group of Sufi scholars known as the Ikhwan Al-Safa — upon which Island of Animals is based, carries a distinct moral: Through its depiction of a court case between humans and animals to decide which should be master and which slave, the story tells of the Almighty's supremacy over (and love of) all living creatures while suggesting that humans are temporal beings with eternal souls.

Big Book of Fables: Island is based on a section of an encyclopedia of Islamic thought.
Ted Grover
Big Book of Fables: Island is based on a section of an encyclopedia of Islamic thought.

Golden Thread — whose mandate is to explore Middle Eastern issues through theater — aims to take the fable's bestial symbolism even further, seeing the fight for supremacy between the animal and human kingdoms as an allegory of the hatred between radically opposing world views in our own time. As the company's artistic director, Torange Yeghiazarian, puts it in the program notes: "We may question who the real enemy is. It may occur to us that the 'war' isn't between the East and the West, or Islam and Christianity. We may notice the similarity of the opposing rhetorics. We may question the benevolence of any leader and the wisdom of any ideal that excludes, devalues, and aims to overpower." The parallel between the Ikhwan Al-Safa's parable and contemporary global relations might seem obvious, but it's valid nonetheless. The only problem with Yeghiazarian's assertions is that the production fails to live up to the political point she'd like it to make.

There's much to occupy the senses in Island of Animals, from the physical, witty animal performances to the visual and aural eclecticism. Beautifully rendered images of creatures taken from ancient Islamic texts and projected onto a scrim at the back of the stage balance cartoonish, two-dimensional cutouts of members of the human and animal kingdoms in a Rumi-meets-Maurice-Sendak kind of way. Bhangra music and a snippet from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana offset the whimsical Cole Porter love song "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)." The Ikhwan Al-Safa's portentous prose (pulled from a scholarly translation from the original Arabic by L.E. Goodman) contrasts playfully with throwaway references to Mapquest and Groucho Marx's famous one-liner, "Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas, and how he got in my pajamas I'll never know."

Hafiz Karmali comes from noble directorial stock. He recently served as apprentice to the famous Romanian auteur Andrei Serban, who in turn once assisted the even more revered Peter Brook. Yet despite Karmali's pedigree, his production feels rather like a menagerie with the cages left unlocked. Considered in isolation, each idea in Island of Animals demonstrates his theatrical creativity. But the show crams in so many different elements and is so unevenly paced that the story and its moral message are quickly overwhelmed by the relentless stampede of lights, dance, visuals, props, characters, accents, music, and text. Kids with attention deficit disorder might find Karmali's critters fun to watch, but the play's overall incoherence undermines its effort to get a serious political message across. Lacking definition and simplicity, this study of nature in all its variety ends up being a pale, shapeless heir to Brook's own legendary animal-inspired production from the 1970s, of the Persian poet Farid ad-Din Attar's The Conference of the Birds.

Not to worry, though. Any character development-related research trips to the local zoo won't have been wasted. That exercise might have become an MFA acting program cliche, but it's useful training nonetheless, helping budding actors develop observation skills and focus on their bodies rather than text. Plus, there'll always be productions of The Lion King and Cats to keep actors busy until the next Brook comes along.

 
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