Some of you may recall a widely-reported incident in 2009 in which a pet chimpanzee, named Travis, belonging to Sandra Herold severely mauled Herold’s friend, Charla Nash, resulting in Nash’s blindness, the severing of her hands, and grievous lacerations that required extreme facial-reconstruction surgery. The incident, which resulted in Travis being shot on sight by the police when he approached them, raised the question internationally about ownership over exotic (unpredictable/wild) animals as pets. To the credit of Herold and her late husband, Jerome, they received the chimp from a sanctuary when he was only three days old, and did everything they could to treat him as another family member. The locally famous Travis was known at times to drink wine from a glass, drive a car, and play with children. Yet, as Travis grew bigger, and suffered with the nearly concurrent deaths of the Herold’s daughter and Jerome himself, the sudden shift had an agitating effect on both the chimp and Sandra, who clung to Travis as her sole family member and connection to her deceased loved ones. Given the colossal tension of the situation it was only a matter of time before something broke.
Trevor by Nick Jones, partially inspired by the events of 2009, follows Sandra and her chimp, Trevor, in an almost identical situation that the real Sandra Herold and Travis found themselves in, but plays the story out differently. After Trevor drives Sandra’s car around the neighborhood, Sandra’s new neighbor comes over to accost her on the incident and her irresponsibility in keeping a fully-grown chimp in the house. This triggers a chain of events in which Sandra does everything in her power to protect Trevor while Trevor himself (unable to comprehend most of what everyone is saying around him) has delusions of returning to show business after starring in a commercial with Morgan Fairchild when he was young and cute.
Without a doubt, Jason Newman and Rebecca Robinson (Trevor and Sandra respectively) are the two who shine brightest in this production. Newman, having recently appeared alongside another human actor playing an animal in Year of the Rooster, returns to take on the role of Trevor the chimp, and the animalistic effect is immediate. Newman galumphs about the stage with gangly, flailing arm gestures, a tendency to utilize his feet as hands, and an intimidating disposition beneath the outwardly lovable chimp. Credit too to his and Robinson’s first interaction as it took me a minute or so to realize that Trevor and Sandra (as one might expect) couldn’t talk to one another; their communication simply seemed so natural that I thought they were actually “talking” with one another before it occurred to me that neither understood what the other one was truly saying outside of a few sign language gestures (i.e. “I love you”, “family”, and “bad”). Between the two of them it’s truly difficult to decide who the more intimidating character is. Being privy to his thoughts, the audience can’t help but feel sympathetic for Trevor’s plight worsened only by the eternal frustration of being unable to communicate with others. However, Newman’s physicality and sudden outbursts often remind us that he is in fact a 200 lb. chimp that could easily maul anyone in the room to death at a moment’s notice (and he most certainly knows how to look mean and intimidating when tense). Meanwhile, Robinson spends much of the play with a pained smile pinned to her face, the kind of expression that desperate tries to say “everything is alright” but clearly masks pain and anxiety. She too struggles to communicate, not only with Trevor, but with those around her who wish to take him away. The end results are a few scenes in which Robinson’s outbursts towards others were so emotionally charged and desperate that I was legitimately terrified of her for a moment (and that’s no easy feat).
While Newman and Robinson dominate most of the stage, they are supported by strong cast who each get their moments to shine. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Joe Reynolds (Jim) as the local cop who is sympathetic towards Trevor but has to keep others safe, and Matt Frazier (Jerry) as Jim’s friend in animal control. Similar to Robinson’s pained smile, both actors easily give off the tense feeling of conflicting emotions. Reynolds maintains a stern air of approach-ability marred by duty throughout while Frazier is clearly nervous but maintains a professional sense of calm. Though they never appear onstage together at the same time, both men are clearly doing everything in their power to help, but have resigned themselves to knowing Trevor will have to go eventually. Furthermore, Molly Fonseca (Ashley), who plays Sandra’s scared neighbor with a newborn infant, continues this production’s tradition of antithetical emotions by convincingly portraying at once the most hysterical character as the newcomer with a baby to protect, and most down-to-earth person by seeing the situation without any previous history with Sandra or Trevor to hinder her judgement.
Upon entering the theatre it was immediately believable that Trevor was set in “[a] middle-class home in rural America, 2009” given the motley assortment of circa-2009 DVDs, attire, and furniture strewn about the abode. What really struck me about the set (designed by director Mark Pickell) was how apparent it was that, underneath the mountains of clutter inhabiting the majority of the set, there rests the semblance of a neat and organized home trying to exist, yet prior events have prevented such a place to live. One other light design touch I’d like to note was an omnipresent yet easy-to-miss costume choice by designer Cheryl Painter. While all of the costumes were believable and unobtrusive (thank God they didn’t dress Newman up like an actual chimp or much of his intensity would be lost) I really enjoyed the inclusion of Sandra’s lanyard of keys always around her neck (which includes the key to Trevor’s cage). It’s a small detail, but it at once gives Robinson a suburban housewife feel while also visualizing her continually clinging to Trevor. They are almost never off of her, and appear much like a Christian cross pendant worn around the neck.
I have one noticeable concern with the show that is targeted at the script rather than any choices made by Pickell and his cast. Without spoiling anything, the climax of the show leaves the audience with a very striking image that was the culmination of Sandra and Trevor’s respective character arcs; as the lights faded the audience (myself included) applauded believing this to be the end of the play. But it wasn’t. Another scene followed to act as the denouement to previous scene’s intensity. True, it acted like an appropriate epilogue by not overstaying its welcome, and the scene itself was acted and directed perfectly well. However, it feels as though Jones tacked the scene on simply to get across a few more points about the characters and themes of the play that he didn’t have room for earlier (some of which felt opposed to what had been built up prior). It’s not a bad scene, but I think Jones would have chosen better if he had ended with the previous scene.
What is it about plays with a human actor portraying an animal that makes them work so well? Bengel Tiger at the Baghdad Zoodeserved the universal acclaim it received, Capital T’s recent production of Year of the Rooster was arguably my favorite production in Austin last year, and now their follow-up production of Trevor continues that trend. Perhaps it is the aforementioned miscommunication that comes naturally with cross-species bonds that we identify with. No one in Trevor is a villain or bad guy, but simply a collection of people (and a chimp) who each have a different idea about what is best for them. And yet, none of them can clearly explain this to one another. Everyone has had moments in which they are unable to get their thoughts across to another individual. It’s frustrating, sometimes maddeningly so. But by God does it lead to some good theatre.
Capital T Theatre’s Trevor continues playing at the Hyde Park Theatre every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night at 8pm until June 18th.