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Provocative New Play on Animals on Trial Comes to John Jay Theater, Nov. 29 & 30


O' the glory of the Middle Ages! The Spanish Inquisition, the boiling-in-oil and the elaborate ritual of bringing animals into court to try them for crimes ranging from petty theft to murder! The accused beasts - cows, dogs, cats, sheep, goats, rats, bees and even termites - were provided with defense counsel, held in the same jails as humans, sometimes given human garb to wear to court and, almost always, sentenced to death by hanging in the public square.

Interestingly, these strange but true tales of animals in court continue today in all corners of the globe - from France where a Great Dane named Scooby was a courtroom witness during a 1996 murder trial to the 2010 on-camera bust of a talking parrot for acting as "look-out" for a Colombian drug cartel to the 2009 arrest and trial of a goat in Nigeria for armed robbery.

A multitude of the most curious chapters from 500+ years of animal trials will take center stage in late November at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College with excerpts from "The Tragical-Comical Trial Trial of Madame P and Other 4-Legged and Winged Creatures," a multi-media phantasmagoria-in-progress by award-winning playwright Susan Yankowitz. The play is widely interdisciplinary, engaging themes of animal rights and law, criminal justice, philosophy and ethics. The concluding event of John Jay's annual Art of Justice Series, it will be presented on Monday and Tuesday, November 29 and 30 at 7:00pm. The Gerald W. Lynch Theater is located at John Jay College, 899 Tenth Avenue, NYC. Tickets are $10 (free for CUNY students with valid ID) and may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visiting

Directed by Daniella Topol, this provocative work utilizes actors, puppets, songs, animation and interactive video to relate actual cases chronicled in legal textbooks like The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906) and the media, ones in which a veritable Ark's-worth of species, from mammals to insects, were prosecuted for vandalism, bestiality and other "crimes against humankind."

Yankowitz's piece is bookended with two scenes relating the story of Madame P, an enormous sow who was tried for the murder of an infant in 16th century France, along with her alleged accomplice, a dog named Lilah. Dressed in human attire for her trial, Madame P is defended passionately by an assigned attorney, modeled on celebrated 16th century Frenchman Bartholomew Chasseneé, who was a pioneer in the legal protection of animals. The passionate attorney is also seen in the play defending a group of rats accused of causing famine in a village after they ate its harvest of barley. In this trial, the attorney made case law by getting the charges dismissed. His argument? That the defendants could not be insured safe passage to the court house because the streets around it were populated by cats! Other seemingly unbelievable cases from the past that are woven into the narrative include: a swarm of bees charged with the stinging murder of a young woman in 16th century Britain; a termite colony that was tried for the destruction of a monastery in 18th century Brazil and various goats, sheep and horses who were charged with bestiality. The punishment most often meted out in these cases? That animal and human "consecrate" their union in a legal marriage or die together on the pyre!

The issue of animals on trial is brought into the current day via another attorney character based on the noted Swiss lawyer Antoine Goetschel, a renowned animal rights crusader who has a large practice dedicated to their defense. Many of these modern day cases are dramatized or presented through video. Among these are the prosecution of seven dogs in courts in the U.S. and Great Britain, several of which we're condemned to the death for "excessive barking" and the impassioned calls for the trial of a "serial murdering" orca at SeaWorld this year. Another video montage documents a series of interspecies weddings - man and goat, woman and snake, man and dog, woman and dolphins - from India to Israel. Other curious cases that may be finding their way in Yankowitz's theater work-in-progress are the 1916 decision by a Tennessee court to hang an elephant that killed its keeper and a 1906 murder case in Switzerland where two human received life imprisonment and their canine accomplice a death sentence. But whatever the form, it is amazing to note that all the events in the play are derived from actual court cases.

"Are such trials meant to demonstrate man's dominance over ‘beasts of the field' as ordained in Genesis?" asks Yankowitz. "Or are they sympathetic efforts to honor all living creatures by enshrining their rights, and meting out punishment, under the measure of human law? Perhaps questions like these apply to the trials of any individual or group denied access to civil and legal rights?

"I expect the play to be thought-provoking, and at the same time, wild, astonishing, satirical, Bosch-like and funny," concludes Yankowitz. "In its final form, it will resemble a circus, an art installation, a puppet show and a mystery play, as much as a conventional theater piece. But then again, this is not the usual stuff of drama."

John Jay will look further into this both eternal and timely subject with a post-performance panel discussion. Speakers slated for the event include: David Wolfson, New York University Law School professor and animal rights advocate; MariAnn Sullivan, a lawyer and adjunct professor of animal law at Brooklyn Law School and Cardozo Law School and Dale Jamieson, Director of Environmental Studies and the new Animal Initiative Program at New York University.

Susan Yankowitz has been creating challenging and imaginative theater seen in venues around the globe since the 1980s, Among her plays are NIGHT SKY (produced off-B'way and internationally); PHAEDRA IN DELIRIUM (winner, QRL poetic play competition); TERMINAL and 1969TERMINAL1996, collaborations with Joseph Chaikin's Open Theatre (Drama Desk Award); A KNIFE IN THE HEART (Sledgehammer Theatre 2002); and FOREIGN BODIES (finalist, O'Neill Conference 2008.) Her long monologue about Mukhtar Mai is in continual production in the U.S. and internationally, as part of SEVEN. The playwright has received numerous honors including a Guggenheim Award and repeaTed Grants from organizations including the NEA, NYFA, TCG, the Rockefeller Foundation and Opera America. For more information, visit playwright, novelist,

Celebrated director Daniella Topol has also collaborated with Susan Yankowitz's play NIGHT SKY with Power Productions at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Current and recent productions include: Judith Thompson's PALACE OF THE END with GWL Theater partner Epic Theater Ensemble; Sheila Callaghan's LASCIVIOUS SOMETHING; Trista Baldwin's SAND (Women's Project/Cherry Lane); Susan Bernfield's STRETCH: A FANTASIA (People's Light and Theatre Company, PA); Jeff Hughes/Scott Ethier's ROSA PARKS (Richard Rodgers Development Award at Queens Theatre in the Park/Playwrights Horizons); Leslie Ayvazian's CAROL AND JILL (Ensemble Studio Theatre); Jakob Holder's HOUSEBREAKING (Cherry Lane); Trista Baldwin's FORGETTING (Workhaus Collective); Sean Hartley, Kim Oler and Alison Hubbard's LITTLE WOMEN: THE MUSICAL (Village Theatre); Peter Gil-Sheridan's TOPSY TURVY MOUSE (Cherry Lane Theatre); Stanton Wood's SNOW QUEEN (Urban Stages); Susan Bernfield's TINY FEATS OF COWARDICE, and Sheila Callaghan's DEAD CITY (New Georges).

Other production participants include: Joan MacIntosh, Mahira Kakkar and Aaron Krohn (actors); Barry Holden (lighting) and Nina Yankowitz and Lucjan Gorczynski (video). Nina Yankowitz's video art has been shown at The Whitney Museum, MoMA, P.S. 1 and many other cultural institutions around the world.

Since opening its doors in 1988, the Gerald W. Lynch Theater has been an invaluable cultural resource for John Jay College and the larger New York City community. Under the new direction of Executive Director Shannon R. Mayers, the Theater is dedicated to the creation and presentation of performing arts programming of all disciplines. Its signature series, The Art of Justice, is the only performance series in New York that presents a diverse exploration of the role performing arts have played in the pursuit of social, transitional and criminal justice. The Theater has collaborated with such noted companies as Epic Theatre Ensemble, Gotham Chamber Opera, and has also hosted prestigious events for Lincoln Center Festival, Great Performances, Juilliard, Alvin Ailey and numerous television specials for HBO and Comedy Central.

About John Jay College of Criminal Justice: An international leader in educating for justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York offers a rich liberal arts and professional studies curriculum to upwards of 14,000 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 135 nations. In teaching, scholarship and research, the College approaches justice as an applied art and science in service to society and as an ongoing conversation about fundamental human desires for fairness, equality and the rule of law. For more information, visit

For more information, visit



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