Don’t go to Adam of the Apes expecting a Scopes-level debate of evolution vs. creationism. There are plenty of references to those philosophies, as well as a nod to intelligent design, but the tone of Oliver Thrun’s first full-length play—about Adam, Eve, and their primate relatives—is mischievously unorthodox and scrambles the Bible and Darwinian theory freely. It’s a mildly amusing burlesque that revisits touchy issues in an inoffensive way. Director Nora Vetter invests the story with the same spirit as that of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner in their skits about the 2,000-year-old man. Adam of the Apes has a gentle, winning humor, and it plays off old myths by adding a knowing, contemporary wink. The eclectic music (chosen by Thrun) helps to set the tone, from The Monkees—naturally—to Jean-Joseph Mouret (the Masterpiece Theatre theme) to Harry Belafonte, singing “Day-O!” (aka “The Banana Boat Song”). And, of course, the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s the kind of show that gets a chuckle from a chimpanzee declaring, “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”
This sort of humor can easily become tedious and precious, and it does here, too, at times, but what helps it tremendously are the game, young, energetic actors, led by the gifted Jonathan Craig as Adam, who is descended, with Eve (his sister here), from a chimpanzee, and is an evolutionary leap rather than a direct creation of God. Craig conveys affability and an easygoing manner, along with intelligence and dignity—particularly impressive, given that he has virtually no clothing and no props. Adam may be smarter than the others, but he’s not condescending. He’s a natural leader, blessed with a resonant speaking voice, an Everyman ancestor.
“You can’t ignore science,” warns Adam as he explains to his chimpanzee relatives the way semen works (somehow he’s got a sample into a glass vial). And that’s long before he and Eve (Sana Haque) eat the apple offered by the snake. The consumption of that fruit from the tree of knowledge doesn’t bring on shame at their nakedness either, since Adam and Eve are already sporting the latest fig-leaf fashions. The lady Eve, meanwhile, has written a set of monologues about her lower orifice. Guess what they’re called? Unfortunately, Haque seemed uncomfortable with some of her lines and speaks with less authority and musicality than Craig, creating an imbalance between the two.
Working with a shoestring budget, Vetter creates nifty stage pictures: Three chimps in the “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” mode; a line of “chimps” (the actors playing chimps dressed simply by David Zen Mansley in black long johns and long-sleeved pullovers) representing the evolution of man; and Craig as Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. There’s a strong trio of male chimps—with Al Miro providing a sweetly dense foil to the two smarter ones (Bill Bria and Matt Gerathy)—who adopt a repertoire of scratches, cocked eyebrows, and slouches that evoke their species. The women chimps sit together and pick nits off one another. As for actual scenery, some vines cling to an upstage wall, and a couple painted cutouts show high grass and a pile of apple cores. But the scenery is scant and leaves the black box space virtually untouched (and with an unfortunate echoing that muddies some of the louder scenes.)
For all its cleverness, Thrun’s crazy-quilt approach eventually wears out its welcome. He doesn’t dwell on any subject too long, but includes penis envy, male chauvinism, a woman’s right to choose, and men’s appropriation of God—in this case called Super Chimp—in their image. There’s a semi-important element in Adam and Eve’s discovering that they have a father, and then which chimp it is, but the play is essentially a shaggy-dog story that ultimately admonishes mankind to use the reason God gave us rather than to follow faith blindly.
Theater for a New City is committed to giving young playwrights an opportunity to have new work staged, and Adam of the Apes makes one hope that Thrun, a young playwright willing to deal with serious issues in a humorous way, will develop his talent by creating his own characters from scratch.