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Review: RAJIV JOSEPH'S ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER PROVES TO BE A MASTERCLASS FOLLOWING A 4 YEAR HIATUS at JOBSITE THEATER

Review: RAJIV JOSEPH'S ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER PROVES TO BE A MASTERCLASS FOLLOWING A 4 YEAR HIATUS at JOBSITE THEATER

THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT HAS CHANGED, AND WITH THIS SHOW EVEN FOLLOWING ITS INCUBATION ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER IS AS STRIKING AND RELEVANT AS EVER.

"It's difficult to be with someone and then not be with them."

"He sees the folds before they happen...he takes a flat piece of paper..."

In its complexities of storytelling, we find a narrative grounded in teacher-student relationships that surround the 100-minute One-Act currently onstage at the Shimberg Playhouse at Tampa's Straz Center. Written by Rajiv Joseph in 2008 this one-act quirky romantic comedy packs a punch just boiling below the surface. Analyzing the relationship between student/teacher/mentor we meet three unlikely individuals whose lives are impacted by lessons grounded not just in origami, but also in the way that as humans we feel pain and how we adapt/deal with such.

Rajiv Joseph won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010 with his work Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which enjoyed a stint on Broadway featuring the late great Robin Williams. Rajiv Joseph also went on to win an Obie Award for his work Describe the Night in 2018. No stranger to telling the inner workings of human relationships, Rajiv Joseph has garnered critical acclaim for his many works, and yet still is considered slightly unknown in certain arenas.

Jobsite Theater the resident theatre company of the Straz Center is no stranger to tackling unique works and does so with gusto by staging Animals Out of Paper. Director Tatiana Baccari cradles the unique and complex script of Rajiv Joseph's work with the strongest of hands. Guiding us through a whip-smart, fast-paced 100 minutes that you don't dare to blink for you'll miss even the smallest of "folds," leading to another compelling anecdote into the lives of these characters.

On its surface Animals Out of Paper puts on display the life of reclusive renowned Origami artist Ilana Andrews played by the compelling Nicole Jeannine Smith. Having recently returned to the Tampa area following the pursuit of her M.F.A in Acting. No stranger to the Jobsite arena having previously played Marmaduke/Bonthrop Shelmerdine Esquire/Ensemble in Orlando, and tackling the solo piece 4.48 Psychosis under the direction of Giles Davies. We welcome Nicole back with open arms to the Jobsite stage as the "first lady of Origami." As Ilana, Nicole Jeannine Smith is captivating from every moment to moment, you sense the urgency of her need to be alone, and yet feel her pain at the same time. Following a brutal divorce and the disappearance of her aging dog, Ilana sequesters herself to a life in the studio surrounded by her work and Chinese takeout. When upon chance encounter, Andy an over-the-top excited Calculus teacher and avid Ilana fan talks himself into her studio despite resistance.

"Some animals, they just want to die alone..."

Andy played by local favorite Cornelio "Coky" Aguilera is almost cartoonish at times, and yet endearing and real at his center. The relationship that builds between Famed Artist/Fan goes from slightly obtrusive to genuine care for the pain each feels. You see Andy began at the age of 12 by counting his blessings, and quite literally by writing them down in a notebook. Only revealing specific anecdotes related to Ilana, Andy reveals at his heart what a good, decent man he finds himself to be yet so alone at the same time. Sure he has his students and his duties to the school, but at its core, he strives to find the human connection we all crave. He develops a fondness for Ilana and convinces her to mentor his student Suresh a mathematical genius and savant-type for Origami. Cornelio is exceptional in his portrayal here and each time he takes the stage I know we're in for something special. Like Nicole, Cornelio is no stranger to the Jobsite stage, and this might prove to be my favorite role of his to date.

"What is a blessing...can anything be a blessing?"

Suresh is a loud- foul-mouthed wannabe hip-hop star and a savant-like type for Origami. Blazing into the room and leaving no prisoners in his wake, tries to charm Ilana with his street-wise talking and rapping abilities, while at its center trying to break her out of the shell she has doomed herself to be in. You see since her divorce and her dog disappearing, Ilana hasn't folded a single crease. Then on a chance situation while away at an Origami conference in Nagasaki, Japan; the events that take place between Suresh and Ilana alter the course and change the lives of Andy, Suresh, and Ilana as they will come to know it.

"If origami is music it's a fugue."

As Suresh, Faizan Basheer is like lighting trapped in the smallest of bottles. Seeking a creative outlet in his life led Faizan to the bay area where he began training under Eugenie Bondurant at Green Light Cinema in St. Petersburg. I for one am over the moon that he found Jobsite Theater, as his portrayal of Suresh pulls you in from the first meeting and keeps you in his grip till the final exit. A powerful portrayal from Faizan, and he will be one to watch for future endeavors. He's so grounded, so concise from every moment to moment, that you find yourself waiting to see what he will do next. His relationship throughout the show with Ilana builds, and ultimately you wonder why Ilana has been so reclusive, and so hard to approach all along. Suresh at his core will do anything for those most important in his life, but it takes someone to look past his facade and truly let him in that will allow this to happen. A compelling and fascinating performance and one that needs to be seen!

"You talk the way you talk..."

Director Tatiana Baccari molds the perfect blend of human relationships and their inner workings defined in Rajiv's script. No stone is left unturned, these characters become raw and real people, not caricatures. You feel for Ilana and see her hurt just beyond her eyes, you feel for Andy and his need for human connection, and you feel for Suresh and his need to not only be seen but accepted as well. That is the work of a strong Director, to make that audience feel something for each of these characters from the first word to the final bow. The effortless breath of fresh air that surrounds this work is evident at every turn. Tatiana and company should be exceptionally proud of the work accomplished here, and one I will remember for some time. Rajiv's work needs to be on display more in the area, and I for one am glad Jobsite finally was able to produce this exceptional piece.

Set design by Brian Smallheer, and Lighting Design by Jo Averill-Snell flow seamlessly together to blend the world in which these characters reside. There is a beautiful moment in the final seconds of the show that leaves you speechless, and as the lights fall you are left to your own assumption about where the lives of these characters will go. Beautifully executed in design and direction, there is not another show like this around in caliber and presentation. Katrina Stevenson's costumes are top-notch and work well for each of the character's unique personalities. Jeremy Douglass's exceptional sound design works well, blending new age and old school hip hop to convey the world of the show and the lives of these characters.

The fine folks at Jobsite have done it again and created a world that is unique from anything we have seen as of late. The ever-changing worldview and rising inflation create a world tormented by worry and strife, and it's nice to take a moment and escape into a world unlike our own. What is so unique about this piece is not just the origami, but also how true to real life the characters of the story resemble. We have all experienced hurt, pain, and loss both in love and in life. It's how we choose to cope and navigate the world that sets each of us apart. Do we choose to traverse alone, or surround ourselves with our chosen families, and those we hold dear? The exquisite Animals Out of Paper by Rajiv Joseph is onstage at the Shimberg through August 7, 2022. Don't sleep on the brilliant work here, for it will be an extreme disservice to miss this uniquely poignant and powerful piece. Tickets can be purchased by visiting strazcenter.org.

"So much of what I am is what I lost."

"Meeting you...Knowing you.."

PHOTO CREDIT: Ned Averill-Snell



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