nytheatre.com review by Aimee Todoroff
August 14, 2011
What happens when your faith is challenged? What happens when we love someone we’re not supposed to? When we don’t get what we want? How do we evolve? What does it mean to be human? To be a man? A woman? LOLA-LOLA, the ambitious new play by Peter Michalos, asks all of these questions and more. By tackling difficult and somewhat controversial material, this play provokes and puzzles.
The play opens with a lecture by John, who teaches anthropology at a conservative Christian university. As the country’s leading proponent of “no fossil link” between man and ape, he is quoting Genesis as proof of his theory that, while there is some evidence for evolution, humans are the exception to Darwinism. The questions start to come when his wife brings home an exceptionally intelligent chimpanzee named Lola-Lola, who immediately develops a sexual attraction to John. In short order, John starts to feel a “special connection” to Lola as well, based mostly on her ability to “understand” him. Eventually, Lola and John consummate their relationship, and as expected, his wife and colleagues disapprove. Lola is, after all, a chimpanzee, even though she is intelligent, attractive and, through software implants, has developed the ability to speak.
There is incredible potential for thoughtful exploration within this premise, but this production seems to get lost in its own complexities. While the actress gives an excellent physical portrayal, Lola’s “evolution” is mostly indicated through the addition of low cut, skin-tight mini dresses, cleavage baring tops, spiked heels and heavy makeup. This hyper-sexualization is offered as proof of Lola’s womanhood, though her objective never seems to grow beyond a pet’s desire to please. In a play that repeatedly asks what it means to be human, these seem like de-humanizing choices that make John’s motivation for having a relationship with Lola superficial, even though there is justification in the rest of the play for the development of a relationship that is more genuine, leaving the audience confused about the play's intention. Does Lola actually evolve? And if she does, does she evolve enough to consent to a mature, sexual relationship of equals with a human man? Does John de-volve? Is a simpler relationship model based on single-sided need fulfillment more natural and preferable to the imperfect human relationship John has with his wife, who has her own desires?
Each of the five actors in the ensemble gives a thoughtful performance, especially Melissa Sussman as Lola-Lola. She has impressive physicality as the young chimp and transitions her posture seamlessly as she “evolves.” She shines when Lola interacts with humans using only body language and has almost supernaturally expressive powers with her eeks, oohs and various chimp chatter. I just wish that, as the character was physically evolving, this talented actress had a character arc that evolved as well, giving her more depth to play with than she has in this production. The other standout is Leanne Barrineau, who brings an incredible complexity to the role of Mary, John’s unfaithful and unfulfilled wife. The strength of her performance makes Mary the most human, heartbreaking character on stage. Christopher Sutton is at once charming and appropriately smug as the conservative Christian anthropologist and makes the most of his character’s journey. Colin McFadden is enjoyably smarmy as Ted, John’s shallow best friend. Playing multiple characters ranging from the foppish alcoholic Clive to the mad scientist Godfrey, Dennis Z. Gagomiros is the chameleon of this cast, breathing a light-hearted breath of fresh air into all of his scenes with his irreverent portrayals.
Structurally, the play is made up of a series of short scenes, some only 1 or 2 minutes long, and while it tackles some heavy questions, it has comic elements that should pay off in big laughs. However, the long transitions between scenes slow the pace and the same piece of tense, angry music is played during each break, miscuing the audience to the play's comic potential. The script calls for multiple locations, and as the staging becomes more complicated, there are issues with sightlines and actors being upstaged.
There are some really touching moments, such as when John says animals don’t have a moral compass and Lola responds by saying “other species try every day to make the world better for their loved ones.” No matter what your point of view—religious, atheist, liberal, conservative, etc.—there is something in LOLA-LOLA that will provoke a visceral response. But at this point in its development, the production needs a clear point of view to leave the audience with fewer questions and something more satisfying to debate.