Animal, at Studio Theatre

Ooh nelly, yesterday was one big treat. I had a two hour lunch with a dear friend I've not seen in entirely too long and last night got to get all gussied up and head out for a night at the theatre. 

A woman (now lovely friend) I met when she attended a pickling class I taught years ago invited me to the Studio Theatre's Fall Benefit. It included dinner and drinks, the world premiere of a new play, and a sit-down with the studio's artistic director, playwright and director.

I'd not been to Studio Theatre before and really like the space. Perhaps an aesthetic nod to Studio's emphasis on contemporary theatre that doesn't shy away from edginess, the building casts a modernist look over a corner of 14th and P Streets Northwest, in Logan Circle. Painted in sleek blacks and whites with vibrant splashes of orange, Studio houses four theaters, none of which seats more than 225 people.

Last night's preview was of Animal, a play commissioned by Studio Theatre and written by British playwright, Clare Lizzimore. Studio is committed to doing its part to remedy the fact that currently, fewer than 1 in 4 produced plays are penned by women. Animal is opening now, not accidentally, during DC's Women's Voices Theater Festival, a tremendous joint effort of more than 50 DC-area theaters.

I had no sense of the play before taking my seat last night, a position I often prefer to take with theater, film and museum exhibits because too much information can bias my expectations.

As I learned during the conversation among David Muse, artistic director, Ms. Lizzimore and GT Upchurch, the director, Animal was written to be performed in Studio's black box theatre, an intimate space known as Stage 4 that can hold no more than 120 people. The play, an often-intense drama about mental illness and women, both enhanced and was strengthened by the spare, dark nature of Stage 4: the almost complete lack of set made it hard to do anything but train your eyes entirely on the actors on stage just feet from the audience.

Animal is small, a cast of six, three of whom play important but somewhat secondary characters. The lead is Rachel, incredibly well played by Kate Eastwood Norris, a gifted actress who has worked in prominent theaters in DC and beyond. Animal marks her Studio debut and does so in a big way. She has an enormous number of lines and is rarely offstage, a feat made even more challenging by there being no intermission during the play.

The lack of intermission is critically important to Animal, in my opinion, because the energy and trajectory the actors develop is never interrupted and thus never needs to be brought back up to speed. I wish Hamlet, despite its length, had omitted its intermission; the second half suffered for the break, and even Hamlet's and Gertrude's strong performances couldn't totally resuscitate the energy lost during it.

Norris' real-life husband, Cody Nickell, plays her husband, Tom, on stage in this production. He and the other male lead, Joel David Santner (who plays a doctor), were both very strong and gave us complex performances that seemed authentic and deeply human.

All six actors are American and yet used British accents masterfully. It was really striking actually. How many times have you seen famous movie stars try to carry an accent through a film and succeed? I catch accent breaks and poorly done accents all the time, and it is SO distracting. There was none of that last night, and it was impressive. 

I don't want to say more because the play is suspenseful and there is a reason for that. It's uncomfortable at times, and I like that. It's great to see a work focus in serious, unvarnished fashion on a difficult topic. A spoiler would be a tremendous disservice to an excellent work and a truly enjoyable theatrical experience.

Animal runs through October 25, so get your tickets now

Update: Check out this fantastic review by Charles Isherwood of the NY Times. He attended some of the Women's Voices Theater Festival and declares Animal the finest play he saw!