‘Precious Little’ fascinates with layers upon layers of meaning

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 4/5 Stars » Highly Recommended)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Precious Little is not a conventionally entertaining play. It opens with a monologue by an actress playing an ape. Not an abstract, thoughtful monologue, but an ape-like monologue. It is not comic—what does an ape know about funny? It is not philosophical. It is not human thought presented through an ape mask. It’s just an ape. “I chew,” says the ape. “I swallow….I smack my lips. I close my lips like a purse over my yellow teeth.” The actress does not wear an ape suit.

Another actress stands in front of the ape, which we now realize is on display in a zoo. The actress faces the audience, perfectly still, and creates a crowd of onlookers with her voice. The stage direction instructs the actress to deliver the lines as “quick pirouettes of thought”:

Mom look. I’m looking. Oh my gosh it’s so realistic. Why’s he just lying there? He’s just chillin. No you’re gonna see in a second, like — voom! He’s gonna get up and start beating the ground. They look so much like people, how do people not believe in evolution?

And so on. That’s the scene.

Next, we meet Brodie, a middle aged lesbian about to have a baby. She sits at a desk at some sort of agency where a much younger woman interrogates her about her health and her pregnancy. An older woman (the same actress who played the ape) is a silent observer. It is difficult to understand whether Brodie is being assisted or challenged, helped or, perhaps, imprisoned.

At this point, as audience, I am very confused. What on earth is going on here? Is this some kind of amateurish muddle? Indulgent intellectual affectation? I’m puzzled and irritated, but also intrigued.

Playwright Madeleine George is no amateur, but one of the founding members of the Obie-winning playwrights’ collective 13P and a resident playwright at New Dramatists. In a word, distinguished. I’d better try to understand.

(l to r) Zehra Berkman and Rami Margron in Shotgun Players production of Madeleine George’s Precious Little. Photo: Shotgun Players.

As the play progresses, in short scenes, without intermission, three strands of content emerge. At the center is Brody, a lesbian woman who has selected an anonymous sperm donor from a provider to become pregnant. In the course of the play, she learns that her baby might have a birth defect, perhaps mild, perhaps severe, perhaps not at all. It’s uncertain. This situation is putting a strain on her relationship with her much younger lover.

A second strand of content involves Brodie’s professional work as a linguist, where she is collecting voice samples from an elderly woman who speaks a obscure and dying language which Brodie wishes to capture.

A third strand explores the experience of the ape in the zoo and the observing spectators.

None of this seems to be developed as plot. It is presented more as a series of meditations on the theme of linguistic meaning, communication and separation. What separates us one from the other? What makes us human? What keeps us going amidst life’s endless confusion?

The phrase “precious little” accumulates an astonishing series of associations: It refers, perhaps, to the baby that Brodie carries. Surely a baby could be described as a “precious little”. But then, one thinks of the ape and the spectators at the zoo: “precious little” separates the ape from the humans. And then there is the possibility that the baby will be handicapped, perhaps incapable of language, perhaps facing a life that would mean “precious little”. The more attention one pays to the play’s content, the more the meanings pile up one on top of another. It is more like poetry than drama.

The style of performance demands intellectual activity from the audience. You can’t get much out of this play if you just sit back and watch. All the characters are played by three extraordinary actresses working at white hot intensity throughout. Of the three, only Zerha Berkman, as Brodie, plays a single character. The linguist Brodie stands in the center of a storm of confusion, trying to make some sort of sense.

Nancy Carlin and Rami Magron are amazing to watch in their multiple roles. Particularly fascinating is Nancy Carlin’s carefully observed and subtly realized Ape and Rami Magron’s astonishing evocation of the crowd of zoo goers. Remarkable.

This is a different sort of play. I left the theatre stimulated and irritated, bemused and amused, puzzled and intrigued. I wasn’t sure if I had been entertained. But over the next few days, moment after moment came back to me. I couldn’t shake the images or the ever more complex themes of Precious Little.

Director Marissa Wolf has done an extraordinary job with this challenging piece. The entire production team is to be admired for taking this on.

If you are of an intellectual bent, and have the patience for poetry, this is one that you won’t forget. Precious Little continues at The Ashby Stage through September 16th. For further information, click here.

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“Precious Little” by Madeleine George, produced by Shotgun Players. Director: Marissa Wolf. Light Design: Stephanie Buchner. Costume Design: Valera Coble. Set Design: Martin Flynn. 

Brodie: Zehra Berkman. The Ape/Dorothy/Cleva/The Baby: Nancy Carlin. The Zoo Goers/Rhiannon/Evelyn/Dre/Gloria: Rami Magron.

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