by Hazen Cuyler
Dean’s kid sister has dropped off two male hamsters and they’re humping. Dean and his long-term partner, Mikey, are expecting their first child any day now from a surrogate mother. As the world transforms with the spin of a couch, we find ourselves looking inside the hamster cage where Tyson has just learned he is not male, but a large, dominant female. And Jason, a smaller, giddy and subservient male hamster has realized his love and devotion for her. They have now discovered sex and that means babies. That’s where we begin with Dan Giles’ very funny and moving play, Breeders staged by New Light Theater Project.
But there is more beneath the surface. Yes, Breeders is a very funny play that commands frequent fits of laughter. However, at its core are Mr. Giles’ complex characters quietly suffering through their loneliness. Confused by contradictory and nuanced feelings of love, they’re incapable of communicating with each other. And it’s these struggles which make Breeders a worthwhile piece of theatre that anyone can relate to and enjoy.
If there is a center to this play, it is Dean. He is dissatisfied and neurotic. A newly assigned stay-at-home dad, he spends his time projecting his romantic and sexual longing at a colorful hamster cage. He is stalled in his relationship and terrified of becoming a father. Jacob Perkins effortlessly captures Dean’s tortured eccentricity. In one moment we laugh at Perkins’ neurotic ambivalence. And in the next, we witness the well of disappointment from enduring his on-again-off-again-long-term relationship where communication is not fluid and sexuality not fully embraced. Alton Alburo’s Mikey appears insensitive and oblivious, but after moments of nuanced jealousy and genuine tenderness, we’re challenged to consider how much detachment is outside of Mikey’s control.
The hamsters are great. Fernando Gonzalez is a versatile actor who shamelessly connects to Jason’s relentless hyperactivity, nauseating positivity and endless capacity for love. In a secondary character, he is no longer so naive. He is grounded and subtle. Intensely and sympathetically connected. And both characters are very funny.
Lea McKenna-Garcia articulates the brooding Tyson. Often without words, McKenna-Garcia’s tightly wound hamster bears a ferocious resistance to love, sex and the impending challenge of birthing and raising nine pink hairless gooey disgusting baby creatures. Her talent is made most palpable while portraying a secondary character; a surrogate mother leaving her newborn to an adoptive father at a bus stop. McKenna-Garcia sits on the bench and speaks casually, conserving her glances toward the infant. She convinces us she’s done this before and it’s business as usual; that somewhere, a strength like this exists. But brief minutes in close proximity are too much. Her glances become more frequent and we sense desperation. As the bus arrives, her facade crumbles and she rushes off, toward an unknown destination countless miles away. It’s a subtle and quick scene. But very powerful.
Brian Dudkiewicz, brings to life a minimalistic and adaptive set. His design evokes in us a futuristic and tantalizing anthropomorphic operating theater. His stage beckons us to observe different species as they attempt to survive parenthood. Oona Curley’s lighting is also well considered. Dean and Mikey’s apartment exists at very specific hours of the day. The hamster cage’s light appears to filter through colorful plastic tubes. Most impressive (and subtle) is her work on the bus stop scene. We see and feel the sheltered light of a cloudy day, reflecting off the pavement, presiding over a horribly necessary chance encounter. Genevieve V. Beller’s costumes are adaptable, primal and specific. Dean’s child-like behavior is expressed by gym shorts and a t-shirt of pastel blues and reds. The hamsters’ wardrobe supports the script, emphasizing an animalistic playfulness.
At the helm is Jaki Bradley. She’s a good director because you don’t see her. What you see are actors with a clear understanding of the text, and a design team led by someone who empathizes with the play’s world and its complicated relationships. This play isn’t one dimensional. And a lesser director could easily allow the romp and fun of Breeders‘ more-obvious comedic elements to carry the audience through a brisk 85 minute ride. But when sensitive artists are led by someone who acknowledges and honors the depth of these characters’ lives, as shown in NLTP’s production, we are set free to laugh at the silly absurdity of our own complicated relationships and desires. And we heal as we move forward, knowing that we aren’t alone in our contradicting lives. Nibble.
Produced by New Light Theater Project at Access Theater, 380 Broadway at White StreetSeptember 21 – Saturday, October 14