Chimpanzee is a technically impressive and politically important show. Three puppeteers control a chimpanzee and [her] environment upon a small stage. She thinks, she breathes, she mimes, etc., very convincingly. The chimpanzee is mute and her face makes stoically effective use of the Kuleshov effect, helping the audience project our emotions and our imagination onto her. The show explores life from the perspective of a chimpanzee fostered into an American family and abandoned in a biomedical lab after having reached maturity – it is distilled from true stories.
Chimpanzee is great at introducing the suffering of these chimpanzees into conversation. Its great shortcoming, however, is that it is unbalanced. Chimpanzee is so tragically devoid of joy, it’s as if it is trying too hard to be weighty with significance. A show like this needs either a sadness core or sadness icing, and this one has both. It’s rich, but it’s bland. It’s a chimpanzee’s sad life in a cell and its contemplatively sad life at home. We get a few noncommittal moments of joy – like drumming a bit with a box – and confused moments of love, like when the chimpanzee cradles a baby doll – but it is not enough. The closest thing we get to a genuine moment of love and joy is when the chimpanzee, asleep under a blanket, is hummed at and kissed by a human (Emma Wiseman). It’s a really effective moment. She shows affection, then the light flickers and suddenly we’re in the cell again, and the simple juxtaposition gives this beautiful moment the aftertaste of love turned to rot, linking lover and tormenter, marking them – in the warped new life of the chimpanzee – one and the same. We need more of that purity and range of emotion.
We can talk about how the chimpanzee is facing involuntary dislocation from its natural habitat through it all, whether at “home” or in the cell, meaning an accurate representation should be true to her feeling out of place both in the present and the past. But I get the sense that by trying too hard to be respectful to the chimpanzee’s loss, the cast has failed to show what light the chimp makes with it. Show us a memory where the chimpanzee isn’t passive and confused. Make us feel not only her trials, but her triumphs. The scenes where she holds a tea kettle and a mug or interacts with a rubber duck in the bath while opera’s on the radio or The Beverly Hillbillies is on the tele are surreal and interesting. They show us a chimpanzee acclimated to its environment but still confused. Let’s go a step further and see the chimpanzee making her own sense of her environment and finding joy in it.
The show does a good job of increasing awareness about what’s been and being done to these chimpanzees. For the show to be about liberty, it needs to celebrate the chimpanzee’s own selfhood. Taking this step will help us feel more emotions, and will make Chimpanzee’s hard-hitting tragic sadness hit harder.