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Nobel Savage 

A search for HIV's missing link

Wednesday, Oct 21 1998
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Somewhere in Mark Medoff's new play, Gila, a character mentions that a million chimpanzees were killed in laboratories during the search for a polio vaccine, and wonders if the sacrifice was worth it. It's a question that confers a strange sort of recognition upon theater, acknowledging that not only is the stage the one place where a question like this can be raised, but also that it is the only venue where such a thought would be seriously considered for two hours. Because, let's face it, given the choice between a healthy life and an iron lung - or even a cold sore, for that matter - most people will show precious little interest in a monkey bill of rights.

The West Coast premiere at the Odyssey Theater Ensemble provides Gila with an excellent forum for its anti-vivisectionist ideas, and a fine cast to portray its characters. Set in a remote New Mexican wilderness, the story unfolds upon Robert Steinberg's meticulously designed stage, on which human habitat coexists with pristine nature in the form of a downstage stream and its sandy bank, and through the ambient noise created by Mark Wheaton and Weba Garretson's crisp, evocative sound design. The play's center is Esther Leeper (Phyllis Frelich), a scientist who has abandoned the stress of laboratory research for a primitive existence in the mountains. As she awaits the arrival of an old colleague, Dr. Avrum Belasco (Andrew Prine), her rugged, outhoused Eden is disturbed when a young babe named Allison (Heather Tom) - Belasco's employee - arrives ahead of the doctor.

After debriefing Allison about Belasco and his purpose for being up here, Esther introduces her companion on the mountain, a lab gorilla named Graham, whom Esther has taught American Sign Language. (Garon Michael plays Graham stripped down to biker shorts and not, mercifully, in an ape suit.) Esther, you see, is deaf, and Allison has been hired because Belasco does not trust his own rudimentary ASL - something he'd picked up years ago when he was having an affair with Esther. Brightened by Avrum's visit, Esther reluctantly sheds a few barnacles from her crusty demeanor until learning of his real business: The old romantic isn't here to woo Esther again, but to retrieve Graham for AIDS research. Although a breezy, laid-back kind of guy, Belasco is not exactly oblivious of the fame and fortune that await the discoverer of an AIDS vaccine; in fact, before long he's all but rehearsing his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, so confident is he of Esther's acquiescence. However, she and Allison are aghast that he would spirit the photogenic, charismatic Graham away to a biopsy tissue slicer, and are further piqued when Belasco admits to having already injected the gorilla with HIV. A cursory inspection of Graham's nape by Belasco reveals a simian sympathy with the way HIV infects humans - a sarcoma has already appeared.

Up to the point where Belasco pulls out his tranquilizer dart gun, Medoff has a play that we can at least accept for the sake of argument. After all, here is the classic stage conflict, a war of hearts between people who want to perform a specific act of decency (to protect one individual creature, Graham) and a man who would serve the greater needs of the community by curing a disease (AIDS, no less).

But Gila is the kind of play that revels in shaky assumptions, a story of scientific inquiry and injury where values and expedience collide, and where deciding whether to share beers with an old lover becomes a quiet ethical dilemma. Medoff plays the roles of moralist and propagandist with equal amounts of guile and, like any good writer, relies upon sleight of hand to nudge audiences toward his perspective; he mostly gets away with it in Act 1, but by Act 2 his fudging is so conspicuous that we're embarrassed to admit we were taken in at all.

Once the doctor starts strutting about the stage like a silent-film cad in search of a maiden to tie to some railroad tracks, we begin to question the playwright's tactics - and motives. And when Allison, a local whom Belasco had fortuitously run into, confides to Esther that she is HIV-positive (small world!), we know the fix is in.

It comes soon enough, in a scene awkwardly choreographed by director Andrew Shea, a narratively hazy segment in which Belasco is overpowered by both gorilla and girl; despite Rand Ryan's moody lighting and Steinberg's startling onstage rainfall, the denouement just comes off as a hot-tub sex scene sudsed up with some psychobabble from Allison. It reminds us that she is Gila's mushiest part - and Tom, appropriately, this ensemble's weakest link. Not that we've minded up to this point. Frelich, who has long been associated with Medoff's work (winning a Tony for Children of a Lesser God) and with local signed theater, is outstanding as the steely yet vulnerable Esther; Prine, too, has his moments, even as he makes the thankless transition from three-dimensional character to stick figure to cardboard villain. Most memorable, though, is Michael's awesome impersonation of the gorilla, a mimickry of ape and essence that is breathtaking, from his arm-swinging gait to the rueful, slack-jawed gaze with which he encounters the world.

Too bad Medoff couldn't have simply trusted his characters to deliver his animal-rights message through their actions. Instead, he loads the deck by making Belasco an almost comically overboard opportunist, and by having no one present to stick up for his science-uber-alles position. Almost from the start, everyone's against Belasco, with Esther denouncing him as a "Doctor Mengele" - an accusation so politically weighted that there's never any doubt whom we're supposed to be rooting for after it's hurled. Even the fact that Esther is deaf, and Allison alone has access to her most subtle expressions of the heart, tips our sympathies toward the feminized, pro-animal side and against cold, macho science. Finally, the appearance of Graham himself argues the point because, after all, he's not a gorilla but a good-looking guy in biker shorts, capable of striking a Christ-like pose when cradled, pieta-style, in Esther's arms.

The debate, such as it is here, between the demands of research (and by distant extension, of the human community) and the supposed prerogatives of animals, reflects a relatively late development in the modern quest to make everyone perfect. Yet it involves three very old schools of thought about human nature. One says that nothing Homo sapiens has done since he tried on the first loincloth has been natural, and so he is doomed to failure; a second believes that everything human beings do, from dropping atomic bombs to spreading AIDS, is part of an invincible genetic destiny, even though it may mean we emerge as the sole form of complex animal life on this planet; a third view says that, although by rights humanity should be extinct by now, some divine or biological mechanism allows us to recognize our more suicidal tendencies and undertake the necessary correctives just in time. Esther Leeper, the moral center of Gila, tries to have it both ways, by denouncing humanity's lemming nature while floating the idea that the deaths of millions of people who were "stupid" enough to contract AIDS are the evolutionary price we must pay. But the plain fact remains that Belasco is no Mengele and AIDS research is no Tuskegee experiment. In the end, we are left with a choice that is no choice at all - whether to include the animal kingdom in the U.N. Charter or to degrade part of it in order to survive - a choice Gila refuses to acknowledge. No matter what he does, Medoff cannot sell us that iron lung - we want our walk in the sun, however brief it might be. We may never be certain that a million monkeys working a million years on typewriters can ever produce a Bible, but we do know that their unwilling bodies have freed children from death and crippling paralysis, and may someday allow us to make love without fear of the same.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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