Struggling to be Human: “Trevor” at Circle X

One of the most important things theatre does is stretch our sense of humanity.

More than 2,400 years ago, audiences sat stunned as Euripides’ The Trojan Women made them feel the suffering of war prisoners  — whom Athenians were at the moment holding and abusing, seeing them not as “human” but as “enemy.”

Just 19 years ago, a group of LA artists founded Circle X Theatre Company.  They named it for the chalk mark Ellis Island officers scrawled on the backs of immigrants deemed “unfit to enter” the United States.

Jimmi Simpson, Laurie Metcalf.

Jimmi Simpson, Laurie Metcalf (photo: Ryan Miller)

Right now, Circle X is performing Trevor, a play that maintains the company’s focus on our notions of who or what is “human.”  Because it’s a comedy — freely tweaking suburban life, celebrity culture and the foibles of everyone from pet owners to actors — we may spend so much time laughing that we don’t pause to ponder Trevor‘s deeper questions until after the curtain call.

That’s fine.  Those deeper questions — Who is human, and who is not?  Which behaviors qualify as human, and which do not?  How do “human” and “humane” fit together? — stay in the subtext, where  they belong, while we enjoy the story.

It’s the improbable tale (based on a 2009 case) of a chimpanzee who’s grown up in a human family and had a youthful flirtation with fame in a TV ad.  Now, as large as (and stronger than) a human adult, Trevor has remarkable skills — he uses a  TV remote and a computer, he even drives the family car.  But he’s still a chimp.

By letting Trevor voice his thoughts, playwright Nick Jones lets us feel the chimp’s confusion about the human world — how it works, and the responses he gets from its inhabitants. Trevor’s inability to understand this world he’s been raised in becomes, finally, tragic.  But Jones also uses Trevor’s monologs for an ongoing comic riff about the vanities and insecurities of actors (which he tops off with a poke-in-the-ribs homage to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.)

The company delivers this bittersweet treat with sensitivity and skill.  In the title role, Jimmi Simpson uses a few strong physical choices to deftly suggest a chimp.  He also conveys the full range of Trevor’s urges and hopes, fears and angers, his distractability, and his deep infatuation with the TV actress with whom he worked.

As Trevor’s human mother, Laurie Metcalf inhabits the anguish of a person whose love and need have led her into an untenable place. We feel her always reaching for calm and normal, never grasping it.  Though Metcalf is often funny, the stranglehold of  her angst firmly sustains the play’s tragic undertone.

Jim Ortlieb and Malcolm Barrett create gentle portraits of a cop and an animal-control officer in over their heads, and Bob Clendenin does a lovely turn as Trevor’s successful brother chimp and mentor (complete with white suit). Tasha Ames struggles convincingly  between neighborliness and assertion, and Jamie Morgan gives us Morgan Fairchild’s media-made surface while hinting at a real person beneath.  The minor characters thus reinforce the theme,
playing a set of variations on How are we human?

Almost a character in itself is Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set.  Done in a homely vernacular, it’s so huge and detailed that it’s almost overwhelming.  Coming from Schwartz — who created the lyrical minimalism supporting Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea [see my review, below] — this outsized kitsch-fest is no accident.  Silently but powerfully, it puts us all in Trevor’s plight, surrounded by familiar objects that nonetheless feel vaguely threatening.

Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting is, not surprisingly, equally masterful.  Leading us unobtrusively through reality, memory and fantasy  during the first half, it grows more and more active toward the climax, pointing our attention, signaling changes and shifting moods with dramatic swiftness.

Trevor is an excellent example of what LA’s small theatres can do.  Circle X gives a significant new play its West Coast premiere, in a high-quality production with first-rate performances.  The fact that the actors are all Equity members means that after this spring, we may not see them again — unless they land roles at one of the city’s largest theatres.  So see Trevor while you can.
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Trevor, by Nick Jones, directed by Stella Powell-Jones.
Presented by Circle X Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm, through April 19.

Tickets:  <www.circlextheatre.org>