nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 16, 2005
Giant and Variation, the two title characters of this new play by Francis Kuzler, are twin Hereford bulls. That's fairly remarkable all by itself; but the fact that these two bulls can talk makes their genuinely unique. What Kuzler decides to have them talk about marks him as a particularly inspired playwright, and makes Giant-n-Variation distinctively sharp, smart, and insightful.
Imagine that you were the only cattle in the herd who had mastered human language: how would you feel? Kuzler gives us two preternaturally articulate animals who understand their separateness. As they graze and stare, as bulls are wont to do, they exhibit a surprising sense of wonder about their place in the cosmos and an all-too-familiar awareness of their uncontrolled mortality. In a nutshell, Giant and Variation are Waiting for Godot's Vladimir and Estragon on four legs apiece, marking time by playing games (the Moo Length game was my special favorite), debating rules of engagement (for their games and for life in general), and alternately fretting and philosophizing about a destiny that, they are certain, consists of being cut into steaks and chops and sold for so many dollars a pound.
Giant in particular is very precise about his speech, never dangling a single preposition, and taking care to be very clear and accurate about whatever it is that's on his mind. He's portrayed by Carsey Walker, Jr., while his brother Variation is played by Zack Calhoon; dressed by costume designer Cheryl McCarron in tan leather boots and vests, and earth-colored shirts and slacks, they evoke bull-itude without stooping to anything so pedestrian as masks or giant Disneyfied fake heads; indeed, their entire manner somehow resists the anthropomorphization that Kuzler's concept might breed in less assured hands. Their performances as these two ruminating Herefords are endlessly engaging, and make for the most entertaining and thought-provoking segments of the play.
The rest of Giant-n-Variation is an ambitious blend of psychological mystery, linguistics, and sociology. Dr. Evelyn Kingfisher-Carson is a maverick academic studying communication in the animal world; she believes, apparently, that animals are capable of something similar to human speech, and so when she stumbles upon the Little Delta ranch in Texas, which is home to our title cattle, her interest is definitely aroused. Traveling with her is the vagabond Tom Noise, a hitchhiker she picks up on the highway who signs on as her assistant. The ranch is run by a young woman named May Smith, who lives their alone with her father, studying advanced genetics to learn more about how to protect her diminishing herd, and caring for her cattle, including Giant and Variation, whose special prowess she appears to know all about.
Kuzler tells his story in flashback, introducing us to Evelyn and Tom after the events at Little Delta. They're obviously shattered by them, but it's never quite clear why: he's structured his play something like Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, blending very difficult, technical passages (about genetics and various theories of language and communication) with a tantalizing mystery that unfolds in pieces before our eyes.
He's also built May's story on a foundation that feels a lot like David Auburn's Proof, probably too much so for its own good. (In particular, Kuzler uses puzzling notebook entries in an exactly analogous way to Auburn.) Some of May's incongruities are neatly accounted for, but the main one—the one that links her to Evelyn and Tom and, less directly, to the musings of Giant and Variation—feels fuzzy even at play's end.
Jen Larkin (May), Dante Giammarco (May's Father), and Barbara Drum Sullivan (Evelyn) all do great work, but they don't succeed in answering all of our questions about their characters. Christopher Yeatts, as Tom, doesn't either, but his characterization is so vivid and detailed that we still feel that we know this drifter stuck in the middle of a complex web of mis- and missed communications. Eric Amburg's staging is quick-paced and energetic. As usual for Boomerang Theatre Company, the production values are terrific, from the aforementioned costumes and Scott Orlesky's spare, very serviceable set to Carrie Wood's moody lighting and Ann Warren's exquisite sound design.
Kuzler's writing, especially for his two cow characters, is far-ranging, smart, and often beautiful. It's rare to see a two-hour play that you wish were longer, but I actually think that Giant-n-Variation needs another scene or two, to help clarify some of its tantalizing mysteries and tie together the cosmic concerns of its extraordinary title characters with the more down-to-earth human problems of the rest of this play's inhabitants.