The Neck and The Neutral

PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine

CHIMPANZEE plays at HERE Arts Center until May 5th. Tickets $15-45.

The structure of the piece is simple: a chimpanzee imprisoned in a cage has flashbacks of its life, from most recent to earliest. Accordingly, they get progressively sweeter and less complicated.

The chimpanzee has three people animating it (Rowan Magee, Andy Manjuck, Emma Wiseman). They are dressed in black. We see only their faces.

The way its head juts forward. The neck propelling it in front of the body, the head seeing before the body believes. The sudden drop of head into chest whenever the overhead prison light returned, the collapse of the body in towards itself.

CHIMPANZEE’s press release features a quote from primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal: “To endow animals with human emotion has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundemental, about animals and us.” Without knowing to much about animal studies, I would claim we are post-human. Or, we need to be.

Design elements excellent: from the sound of a warden walking by the cage to the light on the floor from a window in synchronicity with the way the chimpanzee walks in place. The highlight: during a blackout, the table on which all action had thus played is overturned to reveal a diorama of a house lit from within, presented as if we are flying overhead, like we are suddenly the chimp in its dream.

Physical work (i.e., the puppetry) often shines—moments like the chimp’s delicate breath, its tic of a jiggling foot which he moves to stop with its own hand, the knuckles of the hands in general. Also the times when the torsos of the performers became the wall of the chimpanzee’s cage and the chimp stamps its feet against them, trying to escape.

Occasionally a hand or full body steps in for a parental gesture toward the chimp in its memories. A hand on the back, a cradling hold. Performer’s faces at times inconsistent—mostly blank, but sometimes making the face maybe the chimp would make, or maybe a light expression of sympathy for same. Perhaps not intentional. Still, moving in their own way.

Thinking about the chimpanzee as a figure to get at “neutral human.” When it comes to representation, the question of whose vantage point is accepted as the default. Whose story reads as universal? The chimpanzee has no markers suggesting race, small bits suggesting gender—could be a “he,” could be me projecting—and few class markers. Relative comfort, neither rich nor poor. Allows for a sort of Everyman scenario—the chimp could be anyone.

The chimpanzee seems innocent of warranting its prison sentence. Even if it had, we see how it had a life before. Whether or not it did something bad, does it still deserve subhuman treatment? Is the fact that it isn’t strictly human even relevant?

Humanizing the chimp reminds me to think of myself as an animal. Why do I deserve more than a caged chimpanzee?

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