BWW Reviews: ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER Poignantly Examines the Folds of Our Lives
The initial set-up for Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph's "Animals Out of Paper" at first seems contrived: Ilana Andrews, a down-on-her-luck origami artist who has hit a wall both creatively and personally, finds her life shaken up when a nerdy, overly optimistic math teacher asks her to mentor his brilliant-yet-troubled student. As directed by Merri Milwe, however, the circumstances in YOLO! Productions and The Great Griffon's production of the play feel entirely genuine. This depth of feeling comes in part from Joseph's smart playwriting and also from the three talented actors who take the text from two-dimensional paper to three-dimensional staging. As the play unfolds (pun intended), we see the rawness and honesty underneath the initial scenario that sets the plot in motion.
In a play about an award-winning professional origami artist, paper certainly has a critical role. The sheer amount of creativity and just the quantity of origami featured in this production add an original and visually striking dimension. Talo Kawasaki was brought on as an origami consultant for "Animals Out of Paper," and the production drew on a team of folders to create a startling array of origami animals, ranging from snakes to dinosaurs to giraffes and beyond. While Ran Xia's art studio set is rather sparse, the space becomes one with the small room at West Park Church where "Animals Out of Paper" is staged. Though the fourth wall is not broken here, audiences are pulled into the world of Ilana's studio, which feels real and really, really cluttered. The vast parade of origami animals adds dynamic value. The glow-in-the-dark, color-changing origami that appears during scene changes is also a nice touch.
The performances in "Animals Out of Paper" are just as dynamic as the setting. It is a tribute both to the playwright and to the performers that they manage to make a play about virtual strangers feel like it has real, important stakes. As Ilana, Nairoby Otero embodies her character's initial reticence fully. She uses her body language and slouchy posture to indicate that Ilana has lost hope and delivers her lines with the appropriate amount of bite. As the optimistic math teacher Andy, David Beck brings a delightfully manic tone, sometimes toeing the line of exceedingly eager. As troubled high school senior Suresh, Maneesh Saskikumar lends a sense of authenticity to his portrayal of adolescence, even though his character puts up a façade at the beginning of the play.
I find particularly striking just how genuine these performers are in committing to the walls that their characters put up at the play's beginning. Otero and Saskikumar are fully entrenched in the defenses that each of their characters hides behind, which adds emphasis to the play's focus on identity and coming to terms with one's own shelf. While Ilana does not hide behind a false identity at the start of "Animals Out of Paper," she is hardly forthcoming with details of her life. Suresh, on the other hand, has fully embraced an alternate identity. Though he is a young Indian character, he struts on-stage in a doo-rag and baggy jeans. Saskikumar makes clear that Suresh's love of hip-hop music, however, is not faked - giving us just the slightest glimpse into his true self. In both the script and in this production, by contrast, Andy is a literal open book - he keeps a book in which he counts his blessings and openly shares some of the secrets contained therein with Ilana and Suresh. Beck delivers the pronouncements from this book of blessings with ceaseless earnestness.
In "Animals Out of Paper," audiences will discover what happens when these three characters, initially strangers, find the folds of their lives converging. As Ilana remarks while examining an unmarked sheet of origami paper, "Look at this paper. It has no memory, it's just flat. But fold it, even once, and suddenly it remembers something. And then with each fold, another memory, another experience and they build up to make something complicated." Ultimately, "Animals Out of Paper" focuses on what happens when we unfold the complex layers of our identities and the consequences of making ourselves vulnerable. This lovely production nicely communicates that poignant message.
"Animals Out of Paper " runs through February 28 at the McAlpin Hall at West Park Church, 165 West 86th Street at Amsterdam Avenue. Tickets are $18. www.smarttix.com.