ORLANDO — The play “Dark Wood” opens with three men portraying gorillas inside a caged-in area. All three men are naked, and at the start of the play one of them, Rico, eagerly dances in front of the audience — which become the patrons of the zoo where the gorillas are held in captivity. Rico enjoys playing to the crowd and also hopes to attract the attention of the feeders that bring their meals.
Since the gorillas talk amongst each other, the play by Peter McGarry seems like it will be a wildly over-the-top comedy about three actors eager to, for lack of a better term, “monkey around.”
It certainly seems that way at first. Rico is pretty easygoing, and not very bright, being interested mainly in getting candy from the crowds. Strong Arm is intense, interested only in being the leader of the pack inside that caged space, the one who can beat up any gorilla that challenges his authority. Both gorillas were born in captivity and this is all they’ve known.
But any effort at campy humor disappears once the third gorilla – an older one named Mbwane — finally decides to speak. Mbwane was born in the wild, had a family, raised children. Finally he got captured, and put into confinement. Only he fully understands just how much the other apes are missing out on by seeming to accept the fact that they’re forced to live in cages.
The play by Eyewitness Theatre Company now being performed at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre festival in Orlando is just short of 90 minutes, a full-length production, and as Mbwane waxes nostalgically – even tragically – on what his capture means that he has lost, it’s hard at first to figure out where the play is headed. It’s definitely not a comedy; and neither Rico nor Strong Arm seem at all interested in Mbwane’s sad laments about the outside world. Strong Arm mainly wants to maintain authority over their caged environment, while Rico cares more about his meals than anything else. The dialogue, not surprisingly, seems more like three human beings talking to one another than a genuine attempt to create a language that might specifically capture how animals communicate.
Then the play heads off into a different path. I don’t think it spoils much of the play’s impact to say that a loud explosion suggests either a nuclear bomb being dropped, or a violent war that erupts. The gorillas watch as the people in the zoo flee in terror. And suddenly they’re faced with an interesting option: to sneak out of the cage via the door that the feeders enter through – and taste complete freedom for the first time. The idea absolutely excites and exhilarates them – at first.
“Dark Wood” is neither a comedy or a drama, but an experimental piece that uses the notion of gorillas in a cage for a kind of existential look at the human condition. Mbwane and Strong Arm are both quick to rush out the door to freedom, but as it turns out, that opportunity also terrifies them. The world outside the confines of their cage is totally mysterious, potentially dangerous, and might offer far more anarchy than the cage – which is, after all, confinement, but a safe one. It’s becomes an agonizing choice for both of them.
The same, McGarry seems to note, could be true of any of us as well. How many of us would abandon our own confinement – the house we no longer like, the job we’re sick of, the marriage that’s failing, the daily routine that’s become horribly tedious – for the risk of tossing it all aside.
The characters, then, are not regular people but caricatures, symbols of the ongoing inner struggle between complete freedoms versus material comfort. For the three actors, these roles represent a far greater challenge than performing in, say, a Eugene O’Neil revival, but they do an exceptionally good job in this experimental work.
Jonathan Slusser captures the bluster and confrontational approach of the natural “leaders” who think strength and muscle are what counts – as well as the deep insecurity hiding behind the tough exterior. As Rico, Cody Dermon nicely handles the side of us that wants to push all worries aside and simply float through life.
Taylor Pappas has some magnificent moments as the ape that has enjoyed freedom – but also understands the risks that it offers, and is painfully tortured by the choice between risk or security – freedom or confinement.
“Dark Wood” is a challenging piece, full of creative ideas, and entirely enjoyable. The show plays in the Brown Venue at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center at 821 E. Rollins St. in Loch Haven Park. Tickets are $11.
Upcoming performances are on Wednesday at 8:45 p.m., Friday at 5:45 p.m., Saturday at 9 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..