The Intimate Dimensions of Monkeys and Men

Trevor (Circle X)userpic=dramamasksUnless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know I’ve been deeply invested in the pro 99 seat theatre debate (FB). One of the things this movement has emphasized is the importance of supporting LA’s intimate theatres (99 seat and under) by attending shows (preferably with full-price tickets). So, based on this emphasis (as well as a glowing recommendation from Colin at Bitter Lemons, combined with having no theatre scheduled for Pesach weekend), I purchased full-price tickets to Trevor at Circle X Theatre (FB). Although I later saw tickets fly past on Goldstar, they were well worth the full price. This is an excellent show: well-performed, funny yet thought provoking, challenging yet accessible — a great example of what intimate theatre is in Los Angeles.

Before I go into the story of Trevor and my thoughts thereabout, a few words on the type of intimate theatre that Trevor represents. Unlike the monolithic intimate theatre view AEA has, intimate theatre in Southern California is wide and varied along multiple dimensions. We’re all aware of the dimension of budget: some shows are low budget, with only boxes on the stage and the power of actor’s performances to create everything else; others have fully-realized sets, extensive lighting, and production values. Another independent dimension is that of story: some theatres program existant accessible works, designed to draw in the community with only the occasional challenging property (REP East (FB) fits this model; their challenging work was the recent Doubt); others focus on new and emerging work (such as Circle X Theatre (FB)). There’s also the independent dimension of the type of actor: this is a continuum from community theatre actor (such as those drawn from Canyon Theatre Guild) to non-AEA actor to SAG/AFTRA actor to AEA actor; it is also a continuum from “fresh-out” to highly experienced (we’ve seen them all — REP is a mixture of community, non-union, and the occasional union; Blank is often unknowns but highly talented AEA; and Circle X was a number of highly experienced stage and screen actors clearly doing this for the material and exercise, not the job). Lastly, and also independent, is the dimension of financial success: some shows (while excellent) struggle to find the audience (alas, Doubt at REP was this way with few sold-out shows), whereas other shows pack the house (such as Avenue Q at REP or Trevor) — and even packed houses do not guarantee financial success, when the number of seats is limited any many seats are discount or comped. All these dimensions combine to form Los Angeles’ intimate theatre scene, and they are why a blanket fiat approach (such as proposed by AEA) simply does not work in this market. I won’t get on the soapbox now; rather, the distinction of these dimensions hit me as I watched Trevor and contrasted it to REP and other intimate theatre we have seen recently, from the decidedly low budget Pulp Shakespeare or ZJU’s shows, to the highly talented Redhead at Theatre West or Loch Ness at Chance to productions like Trevor. They all combine to make a special and valuable theatre ecosystem that we must protect; it is Los Angeles’ Amazon rain forest.

In any case, back to Trevor (which was written by Nick Jones). If you have read any of the reviews, you know the basics of the story: it is about a former TV chimpanzee named Trevor and his owner, Sandra in the decline of his career. Trevor simply wants the life that he had: to work and actor and be with people like Morgan Fairchild, and achieve success like his mentor, Oliver. Sandra simply wants a home with Trevor and a life that she knows. When a new neighbor with an infant child moves in and is threatened by the risk to safety that Trevor creates, the motivating factors of the story are set up. The Sheriff is called in; he brings in an Animal Control Officer to assess the situation. When the assessment occurs, the situation rapidly goes south — and I won’t say more.

As I said, I knew this setup. What I didn’t expect was the execution. I was thinking that we might see an actor made up to look chimpanzee-ish; perhaps even a monkey suit. But the only monkey-suit is the tuxedo on Oliver. Trevor is played by a man dressed like a man; the illusion of the chimpanzee (which does become real) is achieved solely by movement and behavior. This is the type of acting that one rarely sees and is to be treasured: the creation of illusion from the talent of the actor. It creates a level of investment in the story — letting this portrayal wash over you lets your mind go past the realism into the realm of metaphor, and thinking about what this story is really saying.

The message of Trevor, I believe, is multilevel. While watching it, my mind kept drawing parallels to the situation of my senior mother-in-law who is dealing with dementia. She’s in her own world, interpreting actions in relation to her world-view, and having dialogues that no one else is hearing. She’s Trevor, and those of us in the “real world” are the Sandras. We’re attempting to cope with a real-world situation that is rapidly deteriorating around us and spiraling out of control (while our Trevors remain oblivious). Seeing Trevor in this view reflects the power of the directoral choice to make Trevor human and not a man in a chimp costume; the costume would have destroyed that connection and meaning.

But is that the intent of Trevor. Many have complained about the last scene and have viewed it as unnecessary. Perhaps it is, if you focus only on the linear story of Trevor and his fate. But there is something telegraphed in that last scene that changes the interpretation of Trevor yet again. Jim, the Sheriff, who has been ogling the neighbor Ashley for a long time, has a line about how he saw himself like Trevor. This simple line layered yet another meaning on top of Trevor: are we all just animals under the surface. With the right pressure and situation, we’ll start flinging our poo everywhere, going out of control and endangering others. We may be creating the superficial impression that we can co-exist in proper society — driving cars, holding down jobs, being part of a family — while inside there is a monster who hasn’t been released. Again, a very thought provoking notion — one that comes precisely from the epilogue.

The epilogue also raises a third issue of Trevor: the extent to which we anthropomorphize animals and view them as human. We take both wild and domestic animals and ascribe to them human motivations and behaviors. Sandra did this to Trevor, but we’re all guilty of doing this to our dogs and cats and other pets we keep. Trevor points out the folly and risk of doing this: just because we have this belief they will behave as we will, they are animals underneath. Trevor points out that our anthropomorphism is a bad thing.

This, friends, is the power of theatre. One can view Trevor as the basic surface story: a tragi-comedy (dramedy?) about a woman and her chimp — and enjoy it on that level. One can see the parallels in Trevor to deeper commentary on the human condition — and enjoy that level as well. The presentation in an intimate forum (as opposed to the distance of a larger theatre like the Taper or even the Colony) serves to amplify the message. Trevor could be that man or woman sitting next to you; Trevor is right in front of you.

This is why this production of Trevor is so special; this is why you must go see this if you can find a seat. Just like all the multiple dimensions that create intimate theatre in Los Angeles, the multiple dimensions of the story and performances in Trevor combine to make something truly special — yet another diamond in the mix of gems and cubic zirconia and glass that make up LA theatre.

A large part of the success of Trevor is its execution, and a fair amount of credit should go to the director, Stella Powell-Jones (FB) (who is no relation to the playwright, but who is the granddaughter of Harold Pinter) [assisted by Joseph Patrick O’Malley (FB)). Her decision to play both Trevor and Oliver as humans with non-stereotypical chimpanzee mannerisms (e.g., basic movement, not the oooh-oooh grunt grunt) is what moves the story from surface comedy to deeper metaphor. This decision, combined with the human acting talent and experience, elevated this production.

As for that acting talent and experience — wow! (hmmm, quoting Steve Stanley now 🙂 ). In the lead positions were Laurie Metcalf (FB) as Sandra Morris and Jimmi Simpson (FB) as Trevor. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know Metcalf from her TV work — but her real heart is theatre from her days with Steppenwolf in Chicago, and it is clear that Trevor is an exercise of love of the craft. This shows in her performance, which is powerful and touching and frantic and moving… portraying the wild swings of a woman in Sandra’s position dealing with all the poo that life has flung (not even thrown) at her. Matching her beat for beat is Simpson’s Trevor. Never at all the stereotypical chimp (except when necessary to ape another actor’s stereotype  — get it, “ape” 🙂 ), Simpson becomes Trevor primarily though physical movement and mannerisms — a walk that isn’t quite right, a quizzical nature that is disconnected and separate, but seemingly wise. These two leads work well together and are believable, and they make the story just fly through their performances.

The supporting roles are harder to tier and categorize. Let’s start with the clearly real people. As Ashley, the neighbor who raises the concern and fear about Trevor, Mary Elizabeth Ellis (FB) captures the youth and fear of a woman in her situation quite well. Her role is more a reflection of the audience — she’s the outside observer of the situation, attempting to bring rationality to a clearly insane situation (and she does that well). Assisting her in doing this is Jim Ortlieb (FB) as the Sheriff, Jim, and Malcolm Barrett (FB) as the Animal Control Officer, Jerry (as well as the P.A. in some scenes).  Ortlieb’s Jim captures the no-nonsense Sheriff quite well, and provides a wonderful undertone of … something else. This is subtle in the first act, with the odd mentions of Trevor officiating at Jim’s daughter’s baptism; it becomes even stranger in the epilogue with Jim’s ogling of Ashley and his comment about being more like Trevor than people realized. Ortlieb captures this subtext quite well. Barrett’s Jerry is wonderful in Act II, especially in how he relates to Trevor both before and after things go south. Quite believable.

Lastly, we have the two characters that are only Trevor’s fantasies. First, there is Brenda Strong (FB) as Morgan Fairchild. I was familiar with Strong from Dallas, but would not have recognized her in this role save for the program — again, the measure of a good actor, disappearing into the role. Sexy and very Morgan Fairchildish,  she perfectly captures the object of Trevor’s adoration. Then there is Bob Clendenin (FB) as Oliver, another acting chimpanzee who is seemingly Trevor’s mental mentor and model. Again, I was familiar with Clendenin from Cougar Town. Here, Clendenin was the personification of the song from Dirty Rotten Scoundels — he was that chimp in a suit, dressed up in Armani but still a chimp underneath. As with Trevor, the decision was not to play him overly chimp-like, which creates confusion when he talks about his human wife, half-human children, and three-quarter human grandchildren… but it all works out. His scenes were few but great.

Circle X also cast a full slate of understudies who we didn’t see, but some of whom I’ve had interactions with on the pro99 group: Tasha Ames (FB) (Ashley U/S); Jeff Galfer (FB) (Trevor U/S); Jamie Morgan (FB) (Morgan Fairchild U/S); William Salyers (FB) (Jim U/S); Kiff Scholl (FB) (Oliver U/S); Leslie Stevens (FB) (Sandra U/S); and Randolph Thompson (FB) (Jerry U/S).

Turning to the technical side of the equation: The scenic design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz was just remarkable. Remember how earlier I noted that intimate theatre sets range from simple boxes to full realizations. This was clearly in the latter camp, with loads of household stuff and household details that didn’t need to be there, but served to create a perfect atmosphere — from piles of clutter to hidden safes to downspouts to boxes of toys to … it was just a full realization that clearly took a lot of cost and effort that will never be recouped from ticket sales. The set was a labor of love. Supporting the set were the costumes of Elizabeth A. Cox (who also did the costumes for the recent Drowsy Chaperone at CSUN), assisted by Soo Jin Jeong/FB. This team didn’t take the easy way out — stock chimp suits. Trevor was dressed as a normal human, with the one affectation being suspenders. The costume made no chimp distinctions. The human costumes were … completely normal. The people looked as one would expect people in those roles to look. This is a good thing. The sound design by Jeff Gardner (FB) was primarily sound effects, but these worked quite well and were wonderfully directional (creating that wonderful sense of being behind and around, not a stage solely in front). The lighting design by Jeremy Pivnick (FB), assisted by Christina Schwinn (FB), served to illuminate the situation well. There were a few clever things I noted about the lighting design — the use of LED lighting when Oliver was first introduced; the use of some movers during some craziness; and the background lights as headlights in the closing scene. All little well done touches. An unusual credit was for Ned Mochel for Violence Design — presumably, this was to capture the violent behavior of Trevor — and it worked very well. Remaining credits of significance include: Shaunessy Quinn (FB) (Production Stage Manager); Lauren Sego (Master Electrician); Stuart Taylor/FB (Assistant Stage Manager); Bethany Tucker (Props Design). I’m not going to list all the Circle X credits (as they are online), but note that they have two of the oddest credits I’ve seen: Dustin Hughes as “Metrosexual in Residence” and Casey Smith as “Associate Artistic Director of Original Programming for Projects Related to Himself”, which I’m guessing is related to his current project in the other Circle X theatre.

Trevor, at  Circle X Theatre (FB) in Atwater Village, has been extended to April 19. I’ve heard that the remainder of the run is sold-out, but tickets, if available, are online here. They did appear to have a waiting list for each show, so you might get in by cancellations. Goldstar (linked earlier) as sold out.

Pro99 - Vote No NowAnother Pro99 Observation. As I was waiting to get into Trevor, the constitution of the audience struck me. Unlike most theatre where I’m one of the youngest there (I’m 55) — yes, I’m looking at you, The Colony Theatre (FB) — the audience for Trevor was significantly younger. Intimate theatre has this power — to introduce the joy of live theatre to the younger audience. Further, it has the power to show that theatre is much more than the touring musicals of Broadway that one sees at the Pantages; it appeals to the young mind that wants to think and be challenged. Intimate theatre in Los Angeles is how we grow the next generation of theatre audience. If Equity wants that well-heeled audience that will pay significant ticket prices so that actors may be paid what they are worth, and will donate significant amounts to keep theatre afloat when it is in danger of sinking, it must be prepared to carefully nurture and grow that audience, not shut it out. A wide and vibrant intimate theatre ecosystem — covering all dimensions — is necessary to do this. Actors should be paid and protected, but this should be with a tiered system that reflects all the dimensions of the equation, not an insensitive fiat (excuse me, promulgated) approach that bludgeons and destroys the ecosystem. Further, all actors are worthy of protection and payment — the rules and protections should not be different depending on the piece of cardboard or plastic in your pocket. Payment may vary based on skill and experience, but the union should not be a thug but a professional society that works to better the profession of live theatre for all, and provides additional long-term benefit (health care, pensions, investments) to protect the well-being of its collective members. AEA’s proposal does not do this: If you are an AEA actor in Los Angeles, vote no. We — and by we I mean not only the AEA actors and stage managers in Los Angeles but the non-unon actors, producers, dramatists, playwrights, other creatives, and the members of Actors, Fans, and Others (the Professional Audience Union), as well as unprofessional audience members 🙂 — want change, but not this change. Learn about the proposal and what you can do at

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: The rest of April is taken up with either non-formal theatre or non-local theatre. Next weekend takes us back to Olde Englande with the Renaissance Faire on April 11 (just wait until AEA tries to unionize that — the Queen will be livid!). The following weekend brings two concerts:  Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes Guitar Shop (FB) on Saturday, and the Rick Recht and Sheldon Low concert as part of the Songleaders Bootcamp at Temple Ahavat Shalom on Sunday. After that we’re in Vegas for a week — I haven’t yet determined the shows yet, but Menopause the Musical looks quite likely, possibly Don Rickles at the Orleans, and Penn & Teller are on Goldstar. Los Angeles theatre resumes in May with “Loopholes: The Musical” at the Hudson Main Stage (FB) on May 2. This is followed by “Words By Ira Gershwin – A Musical Play” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on May 9 (and quite likely a visit to Alice – The Musical at Nobel Middle School).  The weekend of May 16 brings “Dinner with Friends” at REP East (FB). The weekend of May 23 brings Confirmation services at TAS, a visit to the Hollywood Bowl, and also has a hold for “Love Again“, a new musical by Doug Haverty and Adryan Russ, at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB).  The last weekend of May currently has a hold for “Fancy Nancy” at the Chance Theatre (FB), “Waterfall“, the new Maltby/Shire musical at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB), and “Murder for Two” at the Geffen Playhouse (FB).  June is equally crazy, as we’ve got the Hollywood Fringe Festival (which should include a production of “Marry Me a Little” by Good People Theatre (FB)), a matinee of the movie Grease at The Colony Theatre (FB), a trip out to see the Lancaster Jethawksour annual drum corps show, and hopefully “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.