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Review: MATT HARMON'S EXHILARATING AND POIGNANT “EXHIBITS IN THE ZOO” at ThinkTankTYA

Review: MATT HARMON'S EXHILARATING AND POIGNANT “EXHIBITS IN THE ZOO” at ThinkTankTYA

BEING PRESENTED AS PART OF THE “2022 PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL”

"What you and I see, and what he sees, we can't compare."

"Everyone needs an escape now and then, it's like sugar in your tea, it takes away the bitterness."

Matt Harmon's Exhibits in the Zoo displays what life was like for people prior to the Holocaust living out their days in the confines of the Warsaw Ghetto. To much knowledge and further proven by history, the ideas of the Holocaust, or what our immediate resonance with the tragedy conveys is the Concentration Camp angle. With plays like Martin Sherman's Bent, and Diary of Anne Frank, and novels such as Night and Number of the Stars, we have learned at length the tragedies that struck the communities of Jews at the hands of Hitler's Regime.

Much to that effect, playwright Matt Harmon takes us one step further with the characters of his play and allows us to experience, learn, and take note of a way of life we may have not otherwise known due to the plethora of information given to us just on the Concentration Camp angle. In his play, we meet Mendel a young boy living in the confines of a Warsaw Ghetto with his mother and father. Going about their day-to-day and experiencing the struggle of just walking down the street to the market and begging for spare change, seeing his friends risk their lives climbing over walls to smuggle food, is a way of life in which Mendel and others in the community have been forced to grow accustomed to. Unlike other young children of his age, his parents cannot send him to school, and cannot provide any assimilation of a "normal life" for the child and themselves, in fear of what might happen at the hands of a german soldier. Mendel suffers from a disability known as aphonia, which by definition is a loss of ability to speak through disease of or damage to the larynx or mouth. So Mendel not only has to live in an extreme circumstance but now has to find new ways to communicate with his family and friends alike.

While Mendel is in the market he comes across a camera dropped by a german soldier. Mendel soon discovers a world behind a lens that opens a whole new realm of joy and beauty but at the same time pain and heartbreak. Through this joy and beauty found behind the lens of the camera, we see Mendel adapt to his world in new ways in which we never thought possible, including a new form of self-expression. The camera soon becomes his voice and becomes the ability to take back the power so long taken from him and his family by the german soldiers.

Through this story of pain, heartbreak, beauty, and joy, we find a deeper meaning through the eyes of the characters living in this world. An overarching theme of Hope is on display not only through Matt Harmon's dialogue but also in the exceptional staging done by THINKTANKTYA and director Kara Gold-Harris.

From top to bottom this cast is exceptional in the ways they portrayed the stories behind the lives of these characters.

Colleen Cherry, a local area favorite, seen here as the beggar woman is enigmatic. From her vocal deliveries deep in the mental state of someone severally plagued by trauma to her facial expressions, you watch her every move.

As Shlomit, Brilee Gold is wonderful here. She is the perfect portrayal of someone who is just on the cusp of womanhood and will do anything it takes to survive. At its heart, her portrayal shows the child-like innocence that is not quite grown-up and may still be slightly naive. Her playful moments with Shmuel and Mendel really shine, and make for some light-hearted moments amidst the seriousness of the piece.

Jadon Milne as Shmuel captures the innocence of a young boy doing anything he can to survive, and his moments with Shlomit and Mendel are wonderful. Jadon is a great addition to the company.

Noah Perez is the right kind of menacing as the german soldier. He commands attention upon entrance, and there is a moment at the end that will leave you speechless.

Sophia Pickford is a great addition to the ensemble and helps tell the story through the eyes of yet another person amidst what would be an overcrowded Warsaw Ghetto.

As Eli, Landon Green is exceptional. His moments with Mendel and Liba truly capture the heart of a father. One thing that still resonates with me is something Landon spoke about during the talkback, "Eli doesn't have leg pain until he feels it, he doesn't feel hunger until Mendel places the bread in his hands..." so precise in every moment-to- moment, Landon makes a strong turn as Eli.

As Liba, Kaylie Horowitz is wonderful as Mendel's mother. She wants above all to keep Mendel and her family safe, and this is present in every moment. You sense her pain, her anguish, and her need to survive no matter the cost.

Best in show hands down goes to Jake Perez as Mendel. His completely grounded performance in every aspect is worth a ticket to this exceptional piece. Taking on a role that requires no vocal delivery is a feat in and of itself, and Jake handles the task with the most masterful of hands. You sense his frustrations when he is trying to communicate, and you sense his joy when he discovers the camera. All in the heart of a young boy who just wants to grow and discover and live anywhere except for in the hand he has been dealt. His movements are so precise and finite down to the final second of the piece. There is so much said in the non-verbals that the back and forth become a conversation all their own. Truly exceptional work by this young actor and one I will remember for some time to come.

Director Kara Gold-Harris expertly crafts a world through the words of Matt Harmon's story. From frozen tableaus and slow-motion movement, this is a stunning piece to uphold. At its heart maintains the truth in the story, while capturing moments of joy and humor amidst the heartache and pain. Jessica Scruggs' assistance in the movement portion of the show is extremely captivating to watch. Both women deserve monumental kudos for the art they brought to the stage. There was a clear, and concise vision of the piece in every moment and a linear through-line that brought us from start to finish.

With set design by Atticus Failes, costume design by Sofia Pickford, lighting design by Jo Averill-Snell, and sound design by Georgia Mallory Guy, Exhibits in the Zoo is seamlessly told in a beautiful fashion. I think the one thing that makes this production unique is the Young Artist Ensemble. Not only are they in the show, but do a majority of the design work behind the scenes as well. Georgia Mallory Guy and team have crafted a beautiful opportunity for all involved. Young performers learning from Adults both on-stage and behind the scenes. Molding the new generation into the next great theatre artist, and I for one am thankful they are here.

Beautifully designed and expertly directed made for an exceptional night of live theatre. The show runs right around an hour, so plenty of time to have a drink/dinner following the show and have an open forum of conversation about the events on display within the story. Exhibits in the Zoo is part of the ThinkTankTYA Playwright Festival of 2022 and is onstage through August 21, 2022, at Stageworks Theatre in the Channel District, visit thinktanktya.org for tickets.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ned Averill-Snell

Regional Awards


From This Author - Drew Eberhard


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Matt Harmon’s Exhibits in the Zoo displays what life was like for people prior to the Holocaust living out their days in the confines of the Warsaw Ghetto. To much knowledge and further proven by history, the ideas of the Holocaust, or what our immediate resonance with the tragedy conveys is the Concentration Camp angle. With plays like Martin Sherman’s Bent, and Diary of Anne Frank, and novels such as Night and Number of the Stars, we have learned at length the tragedies that struck the communities of Jews at the hands of Hitler’s Regime.