Chicago Theatre Review
Unfolding the Heart
Animals Out of Paper – Shattered Globe Theatre
It’s wisely said that a teacher learns as much, if not more, from his students than from all of his college education. And a person grows the most from participating in life, by doing rather than from watching. Set in the world of origami, this 2009 drama by Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”) explores the metaphor that the creases created by folding paper into three-dimensional sculptures are like the experiences and memories etched into our brains. They’re the moments that make each of us who we are today. In Joseph’s play, three lives unfold to reveal the remembrances and realities from their past, allowing each of them to become a richer person.
Opening in the cluttered art studio that has become her apartment, Ilana is a world renown master origami artist who’s hiding from life. She’s lost her husband, her dog and her joie de vivre. She hasn’t folded anything in months, and Ilana’s collapsed life is reflected in the crumpled pieces of paper, mountains of empty takeout containers and the dirty clothing that’s strewn everywhere. Into her life barges Andy, a dweebish high school calculus teacher and one of Ilana’s biggest fans. He’s an enthusiastically earnest and sweet man who counts his blessings—literally—writing them all down in a small journal that he carries about with him.
Andy persuades Ilana to tutor one of his brightest students, a young Indian teenager named Sunesh. When she reluctantly agrees to meet the boy, he’s far from the picture that Andy’s painted. He’s a brash, forward, iPod addicted, hip-hop obsessed, wannabe rapper. He also possesses a true gift for creating 3-D art from paper. However, whereas Ilana painstakingly plans how she will fold her pieces, Sunesh creates in the moment, organically finding each sculpture from within the piece of paper. The two methods are as diverse as the brain versus the heart, and suddenly the student is teaching the master.
Joseph’s play is filled with subtle symbolism and unexpected humor. It’s about three wounded souls whose lives become entwined and who enrich each other. There’s a wonderful message here about the redemptive power of art that talented director Devon de Mayo has crafted into a beautiful, thought-provoking story. Like origami, the play unfolds over and over again creating breathtaking pictures and images, and ultimately becoming a story about love and learning. Ms. de Mayo has guided her three gifted actors to show us honest, real human beings, trying to survive the creases and folds that life throws their way. Grant Sabin’s intimate set cleverly functions like a popup book, making scenic changes every bit as artistic as the play itself. The abundance of original art hanging everywhere, created by origami master Christine Edison, is the brush stroke that completes the picture.
Ms. de Mayo’s cast is superb. Courtney McKenna inhabits Ilana’s cluttered studio with a hardened, sulky edge that’s just waiting to be chipped away by the right person. Ms. McKenna’s understated glances and guarded responses belie her character’s need for connection to another human being. As she comes to know and understand the two men who will inhabit her life, she’s finally able to unfold her heart and become a work of art. Joseph Wiens creates a likable, young teacher who wears his heart on his sleeve. His fascination with both origami and Ilana is candid and straightforward; his devotion to his troubled student is admirable. Just beginning his theatrical career, Awate Serequeberhan is a marvel, a true find. The casting of this role could make or break this play and this energetic young actor is the real deal. He’s able to portray the necessary bravado but he wisely knows when to reel it in for some very real, truthful moments, particularly a couple of heartbreaking phone conversations with his dad and sister. This is an actor to watch!
Shattered Globe’s 25th season is on its way to becoming one of its best. Following their magnificent revival of “Marvin’s Room,” this beautiful play by Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph is, in director Devon de Mayo’s capable hands, a wonder. It reminds us that the teacher can easily become the student, and that we all learn more by participating in life, rather than by simply watching it pass by. The production unfolds, just like a gorgeous piece of origami, revealing all the scars and memories hidden within these three damaged souls. But when all the paper is finally unfolded, and all the clutter is eventually cleared away, audiences will have been treated to a must-see work of art that is both astonishing and absolutely bursting with heart.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 14-February 27 by Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com