Humans don’t always see their fellow animals as sentient beings capable of thought and feelings. But in Amy Raasch’s theatrical piece The Animal Monologues, which she performed solo at Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica on Saturday, Feb. 23, the actor artfully embodied the unexpected ways in which animals reveal their souls — while also shining a light into the feral compulsions that trigger human behavior.
“Can you feel it, the animal inside?” a bespectacled Raasch asked, pacing the floor of the playhouse in a white smock and fiddling with a row of colorfully illuminated beakers. As an only slightly mad scientist — the first of about a dozen human and other animal characters the L.A. actor portrayed in the hourlong work — Raasch opened the door for the audience by using science to explain some of animals’ more fantastic traits. It was only near the end of the piece that this seemingly sincere scientist demonstrated her demented and heavy-handed efforts to protect animals, when she proudly revealed her experiments to implant computer chips inside birds who have lost their voices because of war.
Raasch deftly segued into her next character after she slipped on the mask of a bear with a black eye patch. Her voice pitched low, male and bass-y through special effects, the performer grunted amusingly as a honey-besotted bear who ravenously upends a beehive to steal all the honey, even as he marvels appreciatively at the fiercely protective instincts of the queen bee, who stings him in the eye in retaliation. “Now the only thing disappearing faster than the drive-in movies are the bees,” the bear remarked sagely.
“If I act sweet, they think I’m food,” Raasch said in character as a lemming who lamented that her brightly colored fur and lack of natural defenses attract so many predators. “Try to prove you’re not your family or your fur.” But this adorable lemming was even more outraged about Hollywood documentaries that have perpetrated the strange myth that her kind loves to jump off cliffs and commit mass suicides.
But cute is not just what Raasch is aiming for. As the show’s writer and only performer, Raasch mixed some heavy points about the environment and the treatment of animals within this seemingly whimsical work, and she managed to do so without being preachy. Raasch succeeded in large part because she recognized the distinctive personalities and soulful tendencies inherent in many animals, both captive and wild, and enacted her urban fables with an incisiveness that was unexpectedly poignant.
“Some cats are born; some are made,” mused Raasch as a woman who finds herself empowered by the brave spirit of a tiger kitten. In another feline role, she portrayed Bodega Cat, a real-life cat that had been struggling to survive on the mean streets of New York City before finding a home in a neighborhood market after exercising her fearsome talents as a rat killer. Then Bodega Cat added a heart-catching line: “All baby animals are orphans eventually.”
The often bizarre and symbiotic relationships between humans and animals were depicted by Raasch in several unusual ways. In one vignette, a proud donkey took umbrage at country singer Neal McCoy’s 2017 redneck anthem “Take a Knee, My Ass (I Won’t Take a Knee),” which criticized Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who have protested widespread police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem at football games. Besides dissing McCoy’s grammar and sticking up for other donkeys who’ve been exploited for their back-breaking labor for humans, the courtly ass tried to unravel the meaning behind the country singer’s clumsy lyrics: “Is he at war with his body parts?”
In another scene, archly titled “The Animals Are Cartoons,” a sensitive young girl can’t eat meat because she sees animals’ faces in her food. Animated images of animals cheerily assisting in their own consumption flit by on a screen while a tune with the same title burbles in the background like an insipid TV show theme song: “The animals are so cute, you wanna eat them up!” Even when she’s “cured” of her hallucinations after her parents send her to a mental hospital, the girl observed dourly, “Billboards all over town advertise chicken sandwiches with a cartoon cow painting a primitive sign that says, ‘EAT MOR CHIK’N’ — an Orwellian conspiracy.”
The scientist returned onstage to triumphantly display rows of birds in bell jars. “Birds in war zones have gone silent with a form of avian PTSD,” she declared, insisting that she would restore their ability to sing by sticking microchips inside their throats. Even as the scientist preened proudly, animated images of the birds trapped behind glass and anxiously fluttering their wings belied her ambitious intentions.
In some ways, The Animal Monologues echoed Isabella Rossellini’s recent theatrical lecture, Link Link Circus. Both pieces were performed by comically attuned, chameleonic actors who captured the essential soulfulness of animals in inventive, different ways without indulging in obvious sentimentality. While Raasch’s work touched on scientific themes at times, Rossellini’s piece was more heavily rooted in science. But The Animal Monologues was more richly nuanced, with deeper characterizations. Actor-writer Raasch embellished her performance with numerous evocative phrases and bits of intriguing dialogue such as “I dissolve in reverse” and “Fireflies speak in light.”
When a woman is chased by a pack of coyotes in Griffith Park after suffering through a date with a boring guy, her stream-of-consciousness thoughts read like unfiltered, savage poetry: “I gather up my guts like the bloody train of a wedding dress, shove them back down through the ripped-open hole in my throat and tear through the mist to my car.” The free, unself-conscious behavior of animals inspires bizarre, self-conscious mimicry in their human counterparts, such as a creepy man who insists that his date put on white socks so he can “fuck her like a fawn.”
Many of these scenes were enlivened by Raasch’s original songs, which she recorded with noted producer-composer David Poe (Regina Spektor, T Bone Burnett). Under Matthew McCray’s direction, Raasch made great use of Miles Memorial Playhouse, situating most of the action in the center of the room in front of the theater’s warm fireplace, which radiated a glow of light and intertwined shadows that added an air of mystery around the corners of the room, in contrast to the more prosaic setting when Raasch performed The Animal Monologues at the Bootleg Theater last year.
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The actor danced and climbed on chairs like a cat, and she prowled curiously around the wooden floor, which was strewn with garlands of green leaves. When she finished each scene, Raasch reverentially hung each animal mask on the wall, in a kind of a reversal of a hunter mounting carcasses like trophies. Ben Rock’s video design and animation by Tahnee Gehm, Clint Carney and Kiernan Sjursen-Lien enlivened Raasch’s words with fanciful videos and other clever imagery.
As much as Raasch skillfully avoided cheap pathos, The Animal Monologues nonetheless stirred up powerful emotions. A puppy reminisced about her grandmother, who was one of the dogs used to search for victims in the rubble of the Twin Towers, as images of 9/11 played on the screen above the fireplace. Regardless of one’s political views about 9/11, the video footage of dogs earnestly searching for traces of life was quietly moving. As the puppy explained, her grandmother and the other rescue dogs became depressed after not finding any more bodies, so the firefighters staged fake rescues to keep the dogs motivated.
A portrayal of P-22, the mountain lion who became something of a Hollywood celebrity after crossing two freeways to find a home in Griffith Park, was comical at first as the cougar bragged about his newfound fame. But the vignette was underpinned by a feeling of sadness as P-22 confessed to an aching loneliness after being separated by eight lanes of traffic from the possibility of ever finding a mate.
Such succinct and empathetic portraits of animals and their sometimes-feral human companions heightened the emotional impact further when Raasch’s scientist returned onstage at the end for a closing admonition that resonated deeply long after the lights came up: “Science must progress to the search for the soul.”