SERENDIB theatre review

photo: Tiffany Manning
photo: Tiffany Manning
photo: Tiffany Manning
photo: Tiffany Manning
photo: Tiffany Manning
photo: Tiffany Manning

by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
The Hippodrome State Theatre is staging David Zellnik’s comedy/drama Serendib. This unusual play runs through March 20, at 23 SE 2nd Place, in downtown Gainesville. For information and reservations call (352) 375-4477, or visit www.thehipp.org.
Serendib was written for the First Light Festival in New York which is devoted to bringing scientific themes to the stage. The plot focuses on a team of primatologists who are studying manifestations of happiness in monkeys. Their camp is based in the ancient city of Polonaruwa in Sri Lanka, which was known as Serendib by early explorers. The play is based on an on-going study of more than forty years that was initially sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute. Playwright Zellnik has embellished the story by adding two members of a documentary film crew who hope to cash in big by selling the story to the BBC. To create on-camera drama and conflict in reality-TV style, the reporters have invited a rival Russian scientist to join the team, who antagonizes the investigators by forcibly asserting their study is based on a flawed hypothesis and anecdotal evidence that provides no scientific basis for drawing conclusions.
Now if all this sounds too serious, hold on, you’ll find plenty of comedy, along with engaging monkeys with names, in the play. Yes, monkeys, not live ones but incredibly realistic puppets. Created and crafted by Emily DeCola with Jessica Scott as the puppetry director, the monkeys jump, swing, fight, and engage in mating rituals (graphically) while being skillfully manipulated by their human counterparts, who also provide voices for the primates.
Romances and power struggles develop between the monkeys as well between as the humans, and the language is at times earthy. The TV crew delights in the arguments that crop up between the principals and have their camera going at all times, catching every outburst. The rivalry of Dr. Ramsov (Michael Gill) and Dr. Fischke (Matt Lindsay) for the affections of Dr. Anna Sunilagaatte (Indika Senanayake), a Sri Lankan scientist devoted to the project, erupts in violence, which is mirrored by Jasantha and Noc, their simian counterparts.
The play casts light on basic human behaviors and the ancestry of these behaviors. It certainly is thought-provoking and like us, you will find yourself wanting to know more about monkeys, their social structures, and their habitat. Rounding out this excellent cast are Justin Sease, Kim Mead, Wayman Ezell and Trenell Mooring. Director Lauren Caldwell’s direction with this remarkable cast is outstanding. Combining an intense role with puppetry was certainly challenging for all.
One of the stars of the show is Scenic Designer Kent Barrett’s incredible set that evoked the mystery and isolation of the region, with packed red earth flooring and the outdoor sky for a backdrop. Weathered stone staircases, stone columns holding up a carved frieze the width of the stage, and a large carved head that served as a table base added to the sense of being transported to Southeast Asia.
Marilyn Wall’s costume designs for the most part were simple camp garb that included khakis and jeans, with tops in olive drab and other earth colors; the servant Vinitha appeared in patterned ethnic dress.
A trip to the Hipp is like a visit to Off Broadway. An additional plus is that if you see the play at a matinee, you’ll have time to go downstairs to the Hippodrome Cinema for an intriguing cutting-edge film. If you enjoy professional theatre with well produced plays of recent vintage, but don’t want to jet to New York for the weekend, then check out The Hippodrome!

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april, 2022

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