Monkey business at Artists Rep

In Nick Jones's tick-tock "Trevor," Jon San Nicolas is the most human chimp in town. Laugh, nervously, at your own discretion.

Two scenes:

– On Saturday evening, before opening night of Nick Jones’s sort-of-comedy Trevor at Artists Repertory Theatre, I’m sitting at Gilda’s Italian Restaurant in the Commodore Hotel building, across the street from the theater. I’m here because a Portland Timbers soccer match is beginning soon just down the street at Civic Stadium (I refuse to use the ballpark’s current corporate nom-de-plume), and in order to find parking for less than twenty bucks my wife and I decide to show up early and spend a good deal more to have a nice dinner beforehand. The place is packed with pre-theater folk (Profile Theatre has a show tonight, too), a mob of soccer fans all dressed in green, and presumably a few people who just happened to make reservations for 6 o’clock on this particular Saturday. The din’s incredible, like the high-pitched thrumming of generators at an electrical power station, and the servers are hustling around at warp speed, taking orders, carrying platters, running filled wine glasses upstairs and down. In the open kitchen you can see the cooks moving in an orchestrated whir like the blades on an electric mixer, chop-chop-chop. What stands out is the professional efficiency of the staff, who move quickly and unobtrusively from table to table, checking on the wine, refilling the bread plate or the water glass, whisking away dirty plates, bringing a new fork if needed. On a hectic evening, only by running as a well-rehearsed team can a restaurant staff create the illusion of ease and calm and keep the whole edifice from falling into chaos.

Hamblin, San Nicolas, Luch, Gibson: couch potatoes and more. Photo: Owen Carey

Hamblin, San Nicolas, Lucht, Gibson: couch potatoes and more. Photo: Owen Carey

– On Sunday morning, as I sit down at my kitchen nook to begin to write this piece, a sonic boom sounds from the dining room behind me, and a blur of black fur, ears bent back like paper-airplane wings, streaks to the back of the house. On the dining room floor is a potted plant, messily unpotted – ceramic shards are scattered like little poison darts around the room. Dirt is blanketing the rug, burrowing beneath it, unaccountably splattered on windows and sills seemingly a safe distance from the scene of the crime.

I mention these two occurrences because (a) the success of Artists Rep’s Trevor is extraordinarily tied to the skills of its running crew, who have an unbelievable mess to set up and then clean up nightly and must run the show with the precision of a madcap farce, although that’s not precisely what Trevor is; and (b) if a five-pound, five-month-old kitten can inflict this much damage in a dining room, how much more havoc can a 150-pound grown chimpanzee create if let out on the loose?

Because that’s what Trevor, in the person – or primate – of actor Jon San Nicolas, is: an overgrown, on-the-loose chimp who once was a “child” actor (he did a national commercial with Morgan Fairchild) and who now lives in unconventional small-town domesticity with his human mom, Sandra (Sarah Lucht), much to the growing consternation of townsfolk in general and in particular next-door neighbor Ashley (Vonessa Martin), who has a young baby who cries an awful lot and really sort of bugs Trevor and Sandra. Trevor, meanwhile, alternately “borrows” Sandra’s keys to take the car out for a spin and dreams of getting back to Hollywood and doing a TV series with Morgan (nobody said this was an Animal Planet documentary).

Gibson and San Nicolas: Hey, kids, let's put on a show! Photo: Owen Carey

Gibson and San Nicolas: Hey, kids, let’s put on a show! Photo: Owen Carey

The question of whether Trevor is a light comedy or something with more serious intentions is complicated, and maybe not really all that important. As with most good comedies it raises a few intriguing cultural questions, and it’s not really giving away too much to report that things end up in something of a sorry mess. At the same time, it’s hard to consider Trevor a tragic hero, because he spends most of the evening making clever wisecracks, and he’s … well, he’s a chimp. The question inevitably rises of how we increasingly personify our pets, turning them into alternative children, and blur the distinction between genuine companionship and unbridgeable species differences. The related suggestion rises of how much alike we are with other animals, how they and we are less alien from one another than once presumed, how much emotional understanding can flow between human and beast. Yet as neighbor Ashley stresses, a chimp is not a human, and sees the world in fundamentally different ways. Same goes for a dog or cat (a cat, in particular, can never be truly tamed). When we remove animals from their natural environs, what are our obligations, and what should we expect?

In Trevor, such questions are unquestionably there but seem like an overlay. Trevor sounds gentle echoes of Mary Shelley’s lonely stitched-together man in Frankenstein, and of poor dim giant Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men – each, in his way, a not-quite-human whose sins are not truly sins at all, but the unanticipated results of very different expectations and assumptions: they are creatures outside the ordinary conversation, and what transpires in their tales is at least as much about other people as it is about Lennie and the monster themselves. Trevor’s trouble in communication seems more human than beastly. Don’t we all misunderstand other people? Aren’t we all misunderstood? And so the play leans more toward rueful comedy, with a little ping of social conscience underneath.

San Nicolas, Lucht, Martin: a little tension with your tea? Photo: Owen Carey

San Nicolas, Lucht, Martin: a little tension with your tea? Photo: Owen Carey

With that in mind, what matters is how smoothly the seriocomic events are pulled off, and under Dámaso Rodriguez’ acute direction they are pulled off very crisply and juicily, indeed. Let’s pause for a moment to name a few of those crucial tech and design people who built the machinery that allows the engine to click, and who are actually credited in the program: props master Sarah Kindler, who no doubt has a graduate degree in advanced freeform juggling; fight choreographer John Cole, who keeps it looking real; stage manager Michelle Jazuk and assistant stage manager D Westerholm; sound designer Rodolfo Ortega, whose sly wit in song choices and acute shifts in tempo help pace the action; scenic designer Susan Gratch and her assistant, Adam Roy, who have created a wide-open set that’s at once sturdy enough to handle an overly exuberant large primate and capable of being turned into a believable shambles. Plus that nameless, necessary cleanup crew.

And that sets up the situation for the show’s seven actors, who make up a truly splendid and entertaining ensemble. It begins with San Nicolas, who adds yet another to a long string of vibrant and memorable off-kilter triumphs on stages in town. He is not in monkey costume, suggesting Trevor’s simian nature instead through subtle stances and body movements, and coming across as basically human most of the time so that on those occasions when he doesn’t, he presents the audience with the shock-realization that, yes, indeed, Trevor really is a chimp, and he is fundamentaly different. Michael Mendelson matches San Nicolas beautifully as Oliver, Trevor’s simian muse, who has succeeded so wildly in show business that he seems almost wholly human, and yet carries himself with a delicate sadness: so near, yet so far. Lucht is spot-on as Sandra, Trevor’s fierce keeper and protector, who is carrying a load of grief and needs Trevor to be something – someone – he is not and never can be. Martin, as neighbor Ashley, manages to be the voice of reason and a busybody irritant at once; Joseph Gibson steps ably into a variety of roles, most memorably as the animal-welfare guy who has to decide whether Trevor’s a menace or just an unusual pet; Jana Lee Hamblin has a good deal of fun embodying Morgan Fairchild, the costar of Trevor’s dreams. And Jason Glick gives a fine, subtle, funny, and moving performance as Jim, the cop and onetime pal of Sandra’s late husband, who is caught between a rock and a hard place and must decide which one to move.

In the end, Trevor nudges, at least for me, toward the entertainment side of the entertainment/art divide, which I mean less as a judgment than a description: lord knows the theater needs good entertainment. How seriously we can take a tale that bypasses actual knowledge about large-primate intelligence and instinct in favor of a sort of human metaphor is an open question, and how deeply we can feel tragedy or even pathos in the outcome depends on how invested we are in whatever reality we choose to ascribe to Trevor.

Still, the questions linger, and they’re as much about us as about our animal companions. What if your adorable kitten were the size of a mountain lion? Would you be just a little … I don’t know … afraid?


Trevor continues through October 9 at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.



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