How likely is it that the commedia dell'arte character Pierrot, a passel of peculiar primatologists, and a chimp could come together in the same story? It happened last weekend at Community Education Center in S
onso, Simians & Pierrot
, a physical dance-theater piece by the center's New Edge resident artist, Marcel Williams Foster, who tied them up in a neat little package - and in the funniest kind of way.
As we enter the performance space, five "scientists" in lab coats greet us and we realize we are playing attendees at a conference. They hand out graphs, direct us to a refreshment table, and introduce their leader, Dr. Kathryn Schwartz (Jenna Horton), themselves, and their specialties: One is an American Sign Language (ASL) expert.
Foster bills himself as an anthropologist working in the fields of dance and theater; he spent four years studying in Gombe National Park, Tanzania, at Jane Goodall's Center for Primate Studies. At 2010's Fringe Festival, he appeared in The Jane Goodall Experience as Goodall, in drag. Here, he does not perform but directs. Continuing to mine his experience, he reached back even further in his own academic history to when he was first introduced to the Pierrot character by Aya Nishina, a native of Sendai, Japan, who created the work's brooding score. Mysteriously, Foster inserts Pierrot (Matteo Scammell) into the circle of scientists attempting to teach the chimp (Hannah De Keijzer.)
You may recall the 1970s experiment with baby chimp Nim Chimpsky, reared with a Manhattan family and taught to sign. Riffing off this event, Foster has his scientists invite audience members to the stage; they are taught the ASL for food and attempt to teach the sign to the chimp. But unlike Chimpsky, this ape, named Chunky, refuses to sign - until Scammell, as Pierrot, enters.
He charms the chimp and the audience too, making an exceptional professional debut as a dance-trained actor with a rubber face and a body fluid with impudent grace. De Keijzer, a member of Green Chair Dance group, does a frighteningly realistic turn as the simian. Foster gave Scammell, De Keijzer and Brandon Sloan as Sonso, the scientist, very little choreography, allowing them to develop their characters' movements.
Defying Dr. Schwartz, Sonso analyzes Pierrot, trying to discover what made Chunky sign for him and no one else. His nervous, twitchy dance is a perfect counterpoint to Pierrot's dreamy, dulcet pantomimes. The two fall in love as Sonso, like Chunky, is drawn by Pierrot's charisma.