You need not have read Darwin or watched any of the Planet of the Apes movies to suspect that chimpanzees come closest to humans in the animal kingdom. Scientists have discovered over the past twenty years that chimpanzees in the wild possess distinct cultures – almost all use tools, but they use them in different ways depending on whether in Tanzania or Congo or Uganda. Scientists have been studying domesticated chimps for their ability to communicate, teaching them sign language.
That people recognize their resemblance to chimps has generally not worked in the chimps’ favor. They have been trained to act like children for our amusement in circuses, TV shows and other entertainments, such as a movie co-starring a future president of the United States. And, more perniciously, they have been targeted for invasive biomedical experiments. Until 2015, when the National Institutes of Health stopped the practice, some 1,3oo were caged in ten laboratories.
One of those was named Wenka, according to Project R&R (a project of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society). Wenka was born in a lab in 1954, then sold the following year to a family in North Carolina, who raised her until she was three years old. But the family then found her too big to handle, so returned her to the lab, where she lived, subject to experiments, for another half century.
Wenka’s story, I suspect, is one of those that Nick Lehane researched to put together “Chimpanzee,” at HERE Arts Center, an hour-long play that presents a chimp in captivity, recalling her youth with a human family.
The chimp is a puppet, manipulated by three puppeteers. “Chimpanzee” shows the power of puppetry to elicit emotion for a story that would surely be less effective told in any other way. The show was originally paired at HERE Arts with “Ashes,” a more elaborate play by the Norwegian French theater company Polaire Plexus, also based on a true story, of a pyromaniac who torched his hometown, and the writer born in that town who struggled to tell the story. “Ashes” is on tour, and closed on March 17. That was when “Chimpanzee” was scheduled to close on the same day, but it has proven popular enough to be extended through May 7th. It’s worth catching.
Marika Kent’s lighting design and Kate Marvin’s sound design are central elements in the telling of the story, but it is the expressiveness of the puppet’s head and limbs that tug at us most exquisitely. When we first see the puppet, she is pacing back and forth under dim light, with the occasional sound of the clinking of cages. She uses her hand to put food into her mouth from a dog dish suddenly shoved into her cage, apathetically staring into space, as if she doesn’t really care whether she eats or not. The lights suddenly brighten, the sound turns into a dreamlike tinkling music, and the chimp walks upright, head looking around, full of curiosity, until it comes upon a wooden storage box, and is delighted by its contents – scarves that she playfully drapes over her head; tiny toy babies and chimps, which she examines every which way…and then hugs to her chest. But then lights grow dim again, the harsh clinking returns and there is a cacophony of distant screeches, the other animals in cages in the lab. She covers her ears, hugs herself in desolation. Back and forth it goes, from her past life of discovery and delight to her present life of isolation and despair.
Two of the puppeteers, Emma Wiseman and Andy Manjuck, visibly manipulate the puppet, but also sometimes silently suggest the chimp’s human owners or keepers. Rowan Magee occasionally assists when the chimp’s actions are especially intricate, but largely provides the props, many of which – a bottle of wine, a vacuum cleaner hose, a fishing rod, a laundry basket, a picture book – are objects of fascination or provide comic relief.
If the chimp’s circumstances are not always precisely clear, that just adds to our empathy for this creature — made out of wood, rope, carved hard foam and paper mâché — who sulks and rages and dreams, seeks love, fights depression, achieves moments of transcendence.
Created and Directed by Nick Lehane
Puppeteers: Rowan Magee, Andy Manjuck, and Emma Wiseman
Lighting Designer: Marika Kent
Associate Lighting Designer: Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa
Sound Designer: Kate Marvin
Associate Sound Designer: Avery Orvis
Puppet and Scenic Designer: Nick Lehane
Stage Manager: Mariah Plante
Running time: One Hour
Tickets: $25 – $45
Chimpanzee is running through May 5, 2019