Chicago Theatre Review
Pets are People, Too
Red Handed Otter – Red Orchid Theatre
Paul and Donald, two security guards, sit in a small room, casually watching their surveillance monitors and listening to a particularly haunting, obscure opera aria. Paul, after confiding that the piece is being about a mother mourning the loss of her daughter, unexpectedly bursts into tears. Both Donald and the audience assume that it’s the music that’s moved the middle-aged man to express sorrow, but then Paul confesses that he’s just lost his longtime companion, his pet kitty. From this unconventional, beginning playwright Ethan Lipton has penned an uniquely winning, often humorous and touching 90-minute one-act that’s about relationships, both between people and between humans and their pets.
The five men and women who work together as security guards, keeping watch over this unnamed multistoried urban facility have, as is so often the case, evolved into a closely-knit family. They share stories about the pets they’ve known as well as the memories of past relationships they’ve enjoyed. Besides mourning his lost kitty, Paul is also depressed over his past breakup with fellow security guard, Angela. The two remain friends and coworkers, but Donald and Angela have now recently become close, which creates tension and jealousy between the three. Estelle and Randy, the other two employees, have become a couple, as well, which has left Paul feeling like the odd man out. Now, with the death of his longtime pet, Paul’s sunk into a deep depression.
The world these men and women share is primarily confined to the tight quarters of the monitor room, a set skillfully designed by Jim Moore to be as claustrophobic (and versatile) as the complicated alliances in this story. In the play’s most interesting interlude, the group throws a party for Paul to celebrate a career milestone, as well as to roust him out of his ennui. During this scene memories are shared and confessions are made about pets and their relationships to their owners. Estelle reveals that, unlike her coworkers, she’s never actually owned a pet and she longs for the kind of experiences and feelings her friends have described. Angela tells about a bunny she once owned as a child and, in one very funny moment, the group tries to mimic the sounds of a growling rabbit.
Guy Van Swearingen once again offers a bravura performance at Red Orchid Theatre as Paul, the veteran security guard whose sad life has become as shallow as the two-dimensional images he watches on monitor. Luce Metrius, so impressive in Red Orchid’s last production, is strong, likable and redoubtable as Donald. As Angela, Ashley Neal brings a spunky affability and determination to the one character who doesn’t see her security guard position as the end of the road, but rather as a step toward other exciting opportunities and relationships. Mierka Girten creates a quirky, lovable Estelle and Bob Kruse, in his Red Orchid debut, is humorous, eccentric and unpredictable as Randy. Ensemble member Dado has staged this production with vigor and warmth, employing David Woolley’s expert fight choreography, in one the most realistic moments of hand-to-hand combat seen on a Chicago stage.
In Ethan Lipton’s new play, all the characters speak volumes about the complicated relationships between men and women, however they’re expressed through the love given to and received from pets. These furry babies truly become their owner’s surrogate children. The devastation experienced by the loss of a pet is akin to losing a young son or daughter. Lipton has created a dialogue that speaks truths, both to pet owners and to those, like Estelle, who’ve never had the pleasure of owning a dog or a cat. Through Mr. Lipton’s realistic, amusing and empathetic characters we’re reminded that pets are people, too.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 9-May 24 by Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 312-943-8722 or by going to www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.