"Miss Saigon" no longer has the theater world's most compelling helicopter scene. That bragging right belongs to "Animate," Ken LaZebnik's site-specific new play that premiered over the weekend.
An actual chopper whirs around the conservatory of St. Paul's Como Zoo before landing on the lawn to launch "Animate." Out jumps actor Randy Reyes with a white container. A rare pangolin is in estrus at the fictional Jackson Kennicott Zoo and the survival of the species depends on the precious cargo Reyes bears.
Produced by Mixed Blood Theatre and directed by founder Jack Reuler, who is stepping down next summer, "Animate" deals with species survival, tainted philanthropy and racial politics, among other hot-button issues. It's an ambitious work, not just in its scale and scope but also in its subject matter.
Don Cheadle and Joe Minjares, longtime friends of Mixed Blood, make video appearances in a cast that includes such stage stars as Sally Wingert, Stephen Yoakam, Bruce Young, Jevetta Steele and Regina Marie Williams, who plays the zoo director.
"Animate" requires audience members to join in quite literally. The action takes place in eight discrete locations at Como, including in exhibits featuring primates, giraffes and Sparky the Sea Lion. Audience members are divided into ambling pods that each partake in the play in a different order. So wear comfortable walking shoes if you go.
The spectacle and star power are enough of a draw for "Animate," Mixed Blood's comeback-from-the-pandemic, and one that's true, thematically, to the kind of shows it has produced over the past 46 years.
Never-seen philanthropist Preston Davis wants to make a $40 million gift to Kennicott Zoo. But he has used outdated, racially coded language — not the N-word, mind you, but something lesser. Online activists, led by a strident character played by Taj Ruler, have unearthed his comments and are demanding blood. Should the zoo accept his gift?
Patrons vote at the end.
Playwright LaZebnik leavens the dialogue with wit and charm. One scene, in a seal house, includes a wedding, with a groom who may be more committed to his work than to his fiancée. There's also a running gag with the bearer of pangolin sperm.
LaZebnik could go a lot deeper and could sharpen the narrative more to make us care about the human characters. We already love those cute background animals.
In a way, "Animate" is about us, as the play becomes a mirror of where we are today. As people vote, questions swirl in the air, including: Is the objectionable language just a faux pas or a sign of something deeper from the donor? Can money earned in morally dubious ways be put to good use, like, say, the Rhodes Scholarship and what about foundations that come from rapacious robber barons?
"Animate" concludes with a sort of congress as the whole audience gathers in an amphitheater to hear the crystallized arguments while Sparky the Sea Lion does flips in the background. And, really, that's the crux of the challenge for the actors and, ultimately, the audience.
As commanding as these actors are in their scenic exhibits, it's hard for them to compete with the uncredited charismatic animals that are part of their cast. That conflict also has a bearing.
A zoo may be an artificial turf for these creatures — a human-made ark — but the giraffe stretching its long neck and looking silent at us, or the gorilla holding its chin as if in thought make what the actors are saying go in one ear and out the other.
Ultimately, the noise from the helicopter and exhibits vanishes, and we're left to stand in silence with one another. It's good to be back in the theater, and to celebrate the febrile creativity of so many artists, even if this show is still a work in progress.