Review: Mixed Blood Theatre's Animate Paves a Way for Post-Pandemic Performance
The play was performed at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in Minnesota.
The pandemic forced theaters across the country to reconsider the logistics of live performance. In response, many of the theater organizations in and around the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota quickly shifted gears to adapt their programming.
Theatre Mu, the second-largest Asian American theater organization in the United States, put on a number of streamed performances at the height of lockdown, like Susan Soon He Stanton's Today Is My Birthday and Elizabeth Wong's China Doll. The Penumbra Theatre also shifted to streaming late in 2020, hosting A Celebration for the Soul, which included highlights from its acclaimed Black Nativity, after a series of canceled in-person performances throughout the summer and fall. While streaming works well for accessibility and Covid safety, the question of what live theater can look like in the post-pandemic era remains.
Mixed Blood Theater, a multiracial theater company founded in 1976, has taken the challenge head-on with the world premiere of Animate, written by Ken LaZebnik and directed by Jack Reuler. The run took place September 17-26 at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul, with the actors performing linked vignettes within various exhibits.
Animate centers on a $40 million donation from philanthropist Preston Davis (Clyde Lund) to the fictional Jackson Kennicott Zoo for an exhibit to save a rhino species from extinction. The endowment becomes fraught when an interview with Davis appears on social media, where the elderly philanthropist uses racially coded words to describe the director of the zoo, Keisha Hardeman (a compelling Regina Marie Williams). Davis's comments spark an outcry from some members of the board and passionate online activists, while other members of the board and members of the community feel that the long-term benefit of the endowment outweighs the actions of a single man.
The production makes smart use of the irregular spaces. A scene in the primate exhibit focuses on a pair of researchers (Kate Fuglei and Steve Yoakam) who encounter each other for the first time years after their messy divorce. The dialogue moves between their own failed love and the conflict between individual versus collective good, using the gorillas in the enclosure as their point of departure. The animal exhibit heightens the stakes of Robbins' and Glickman's fiery dialogue; as audiences watch the scene unfold, it is impossible to ignore the implications for the real-life gorillas going about their business in the background.
At the same time, a number of scenes have no overt link between exhibit and action. One of the most beautifully staged scenes takes place in the tropical exhibit, where the only source of light in the large greenhouse space is a single bright spotlight highlighting a bench nestled among tall palms and tropical plants. The effect is dramatic and captivatingly intimate. There are no animals, no other distractions to catch the audience's eye as Williams and Bruce A. Young (hilarious and energetic) work the small space expertly.
While there are gimmicks involved in the show — the play does begin with an actual helicopter landing on the zoo lawns, after all — the script uses these flashier elements as a jumping-off point for deeply humanitarian discussions, culminating in the audience itself participating in the outcome of the play. After walking to each of the six vignettes in six separate exhibits, the audience is led to the outdoor amphitheater, where Williams, as Keisha, guides viewers through the final scene of the play. Using an app, the audience votes on the outcome of the three main plot points, including the future of the endowment. The outcome of the performance hinges on how the audience responds.
Cleverly built around a premise that might otherwise feel overtly contrived, Animate offers a blueprint for live theater in the uncertain pandemic era. Mixed Blood Theater is continuing its programming in a similar vein later in fall 2021 with their next production, The Most Beautiful Home…Maybe by Mark Valdez, which will take place in a car dealership. The high turnout for Animate's two-week run reveals an audience eager to return to theater. In a world fatigued by constant use of screens, this immersive approach is one avenue for performing live theater in the midst of the pandemic.