Animals Out of Paper
by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Todd Schaefer
November 21, 2015
A play about origami may sound strange, because the art of paper folding doesn’t seem particularly “big” enough to stand out on stage, but R-S Theatrics’ fascinating new production proves that the art can be the basis of riveting drama. Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper uses origami as the connecting point between three characters, and R-S’s production brings those characters and their stories to life with remarkable sensitivity.
The story centers on three people who share a love of origami but also have their share of individual problems. Ilana (Teresa Doggett), a known expert and lecturer on the art, is dealing with a recent failed marriage and the loss of her beloved dog. Andy (Andrew Kuhlmann), a sweet but socially awkward math teacher, has had a difficult life but tries to focus on the positive, chronicling his optimism in a notebook in which he literally counts his blessings. When Andy, who looks up to Ilana as an artist and also harbors a crush on her, approaches her with a request for her to mentor a brilliant but troubled student, Suresh (Ethan Isaac), the lives of the three become entangled in increasingly complicated ways. All the while, the importance of origami as both an art and a form of self-expression is illustrated in various compelling ways.
If you don’t know a lot about origami before seeing this play, you will learn a lot. There’s very little actual folding that occurs on stage, but the results are everywhere, from small animal models to a large, bright red hawk, to various simple and complex geometric shapes. Origami as a vessel for healing is also stressed, both physically and emotionally, since Ilana is working on a project that will put her origami skills to medical use in cardiac surgery. The discipline also allows for bonding between the characters, in addition to the conflict. Subjects of love, loneliness, acceptance and rejection, and dealing with various forms of grief are all dealt with with origami as a backdrop and uniting force. It’s an intriguing subject matter, with some potentially problematic, awkward and even disturbing consequences, although ultimately it’s about the power of relationships, among people and between individuals and the hobbies and interests that most speak to them.
The relationships here are key, as is the casting. The tension and drama of the production is driven by the characters and their interactions, and there’s excellent chemistry between all three leads. Doggett portrays the initially sad, jaded Ilana convincingly enough for the audience to believe her love of origami and her connection with both Andy and Suresh. It’s easy to believe that she once found joy in life, but has lost that joy. Kuhlmann is charming as Andy, the ever-hopeful, persistent nice guy who pursues Ilana as friend, colleague, and potential helper for his favorite student. The relationship that develops between Ilana and Andy seems improbable at first, but it’s thoroughly convincing as depicted by these excellent performers. Isaac, as the defensive but bright and amiable Suresh is excellent as well, portraying a real sense of vulnerability underneath his outwardly cocky attitude. The developments of the plot are well-written, but made all the more convincing by this strong cast.
Visually, the set is simple, designed by Keller Ryan and representing Ilana’s small, cluttered city apartment. The props, by Heather Tucker, are well-managed and the influence of origami is everywhere, with the bits of colored paper and small models that show up throughout the story. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Nathan Schroder, and well-suited costumes by Ruth Schmalenberger.
Animals Out of Paper is an intense, highly emotionally charged play with a unique subject matter. It’s about origami, but it’s also about the need for connection among people in today’s society, and in fact in any society. With its excellent cast and intriguing story, this is definitely one to see.
Animals Out of Paper is being presented by R-S Theatrics at the Chapel until December 6, 2015.