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David Zellnik's play about scientists studying wild monkeys succeeds on every level except the writing.

Nitya Vidyasagar and PJ Sosko in Serendib
(© Carol Rosegg)
Serendib, the latest First Light Festival Production devoted to bringing scientific themes to the stage, succeeds on almost every level of achievement -- except the most essential: the writing. David Zellnik's play, like an ordinary dress that is beautifully accessorized, provides a structure that allows for excellence, but has little of its own.

It's not as if the playwright hasn't tried to tell a coherent story. Frankly, he has tried too hard, because he hits every plot point with a hammer. Make that a sledgehammer. Worse, he drives home the themes of his story so persistently and transparently that you'd have to be a monkey not to get the point. Fortunately, director Carlos Armesto does an admirable job of keeping the actors as real as possible even when the playwright would have them perform as thinly disguised metaphors.

Serendib's plot centers on a team of dedicated scientists who are trying to determine if wild monkeys can be judged to be happy or not. Into this team of scientists come a group of TV people and a rival scientist meant to shake things up and create some reality TV monkeyshines. If the parallels between the monkey culture being studied and the humans was not already bordering on the embarrassingly obvious, the play proceeds to insist upon the parallels at every turn. For instance, the two lead scientists, like the two most powerful male monkeys, each vie for power in their respective groups.

Lest we miss the point, all of the actors double as puppeteers, each of them giving life and voice to their matched-up monkey: one male scientist plays the aging monkey leader, while the other scientist plays the young monkey interloper; and the beautiful young female scientist is the puppeteer for the enchanting female monkey who sides with the interloper, hoping to improve her status.

And so it goes without any relief and with precious little surprise -- except that the puppets and the puppetry direction have been thrillingly created by Emily DeCola. Precise to the point of choreography, the monkey stagecraft lifts the play to an artfulness that makes you forget the twaddle that surrounds it.

The actors are especially impressive when you see them perform as both their characters and their monkeys. In this well-schooled cast, most all of the actors will catch your eye at one point or another, but Joseph Adams, P.J. Sosko, and Nitya Vidyasagar as the three leads of the play truly do carry the show and provide standout performances.

The stagecraft around them is memorable, as well. In particular, we were mightily impressed with lighting designer Evan Purcell and sound designer Graham Johnson, who have established a visual and aural reality around which the monkeys, in particular, seemed to thrive.

But the cold hard fact is that if you take the puppetry out of Serendib you would be taking the life out of it. So, it isn't the science that makes this play arresting, as much as the First Light Festival would hope that to be the case, but rather it's the puppetry that will lift your own happiness level to the point where you might be glad you bought a ticket.


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