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Animal Magnetism

If there were awards for Best Program for an Off-Off Broadway Play--or even Best Program for a Live Cartoon in Animal Drag, as Mabou Mimes's newest piece, Animal Magnetism, subtitles itself--this play would win it with this line alone, second from the bottom: Flying by Foy. An intriguing line. One wants to see more. Yes, there is flying in Animal Magnetism, and furry foam-rubber animal suits and cartoons to go with them, and original lounge-lizard music and--it's quite an evening.

Mabou Mines co-artistic director and writer Terry O'Reilly has embarked on an ambitious project here. He has translated comic book and animation style into a live-action show. Production design, set, lighting, animation and, of course, flying combine to create a sensual, haunting jungle atmosphere. The production aspects of the piece are an unqualified and bewitching success. Unfortunately, the story and pacing of the piece are not as airtight: the plot is nebulous and confusing at times, and some sections are overlong.

What's discernible from the plot is this: Tin Tin, a rhinoceros with a past, is an eco-criminal, trafficking in rhino horns. He's having an affair with Cheri the monkey, an actress who, at the start of the show, can't go out because she's on call for an infomercial. The play is punctuated with amusing incongruities such as jungle animals talking about email exchanges and dot-coms. In any case, the relationship runs an all-too-trod human course: she makes demands, he balks, tragedy ensues.

There are some messages here. Tin Tin, who once fled the zoo in a much-publicized escapade, warns Cheri, "Once you go against the predators, you become their prey." This echoes the indirect reference to Ionesco's Rhinocerous, a play that also grapples with the dilemma of conformity versus principle. With the help of animation, there are jabs at commercialization: at one point, advertisements play in the background for philosophers-endorsed products ("Quench your thirst for beauty at our Kant-eena..."). And Tin Tin's horn-selling racket smacks of emasculation. Animal Magnetism can thus be seen to provide a cautionary tale about what we do to keep ourselves alive in the jungle out there.

But why the live action/animation format? What is it, exactly, about the theme of conformity that needs to be expressed through this medium? What of poor Cheri, petulant-monkey-seductress caught on a trapeze in the misogynist plot-clutches of the unable-to-commit male? It's a chicken-and-egg--which inspired which--game to gander at, but the creators might have done well to solidify the marriage between form and content.

The performances here are impressive. The old phrase "triple threat," once used to label musical actresses who could dance, should be reinvented to describe actors who can sing, act, and fly--backwards and, while not in heels, in hot and heavy animal get-up--and still manage to be energetic throughout. Clove Galilee's Cheri does beautiful, soaring acrobatics on the end of her harness, and does an extraordinary job of melding monkey impressions into her character. Sean Runette's Tin Tin is also a stamina tour de force, and provides us with the rare spectacle of a pensive but tough rhino.

The musicians also deserve special notice. Bohdan Hilash on reeds created a truly amazing receiver-end phone conversation, evoking the Peanuts gang's teacher, Miss Othmar ("But ma'am, my dog ate my homework!" "Wah wah wah wah wah..."). At other times Hilash's bassoon honks like the opera-box critics in The Muppet Show. Who knew that unwieldy instrument had such range? Robin Lorentz and Jay Peck set an effective and hilarious tone with strings and percussion/sound effects, respectively.

The fluid staging of Mabou Mimes co-founder and director Lee Breuer adds to the dream world so successfully evoked here. But arguably the real star of Animal Magnetism is production designer Manual Lutgenhorst, whose strewn-about plants and TV monitors and hanging cable vines create a mesmerizing hi-tech jungle--in St. Ann's Church, no less. David Overcamp's lighting design lends an appropriately moody, murky ambiance. Adding the hip cartoon tone is Judson Wright's animation, which is displayed on a large projector screen behind the characters, subtly echoing or embellishing on the actors' business. The animated Tin Tin and Cheri, in their old-school cartoony rendering, further establish the 'toon pedigree of their-live action counterparts.

With an entrancing set, sublime flying, strong original songs and skilled performances, Animal Magnetism is a worthwhile show to see, but could benefit from a bit more concentration on the ordinary before flying off into the fantastic.