Clark Gesner, the author of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, has written Animal Fair, a delightful presentation of vignettes that depict all kinds of creatures in recognizable situations, but from their points of view. There is practically no subtext here, just creatures doing what they do in their own time, at their own pace, and for their own reasons. Animals, as we are likely to forget, have only the most basic needs, and devote their lives to fulfilling them.
Animal sounds serve as an overture as the lights dim, and each scene is preceded by a title slide. Some scenes take place in silence, some to musical accompaniment, some are full-blown musical numbers, and some are dramatic playlets. The quality varies, but it's a range from quite nice to transcendent. The actors also ran the gamut, from very effective to exquisite. Brian Ballantine, Kristoffer Lowe, Matthew A. Wilson, Patrick T. Clayton, Celia Gentry, Selena Cantor, Lisa Braverman, and Jonas Barranca played bears, monkeys, pigeons, birds, alligators, groundhogs, elephants, etc. with panache, simplicity, and charm. Gesner and director Mark Harborth got the detail so right that recognition might come as a shock - why yes, that is how a deer moves and would talk (Cantor)! Of course those are the thoughts going through a chipmunk's head as he scurries about (Wilson)! Bears in the mud frolicking like guys drinking beer - certainly (Ballantine, Lowe, Wilson)!
Gesner's music was nearly perfect whether it was underscoring a scene at a waterhole, or a number depicting birds migrating (both of those parts were transcendent). In fact, the music was so effective that in a couple of instances where scenes were played without any accompaniment or song, it was missed. But then there would be a tour de force like the Spider Lady number (Gentry) to lift all boats. Of course it helped tremendously that conductor (also pianist) David Wolfson got a rich, full sound from his small "orchestra" (Peter Yarin, Collin Corcoran, Peri Mauer).
The very simple set (by Derek Haas) served multiple functions as a backdrop (a pile of rocks, a backyard) - it glowed from within when necessary, and miraculously went from color to black-and-white. Stage miraculously of course, but very effective nonetheless (lighting by Peter D. Leonard).
Quibbles - well, yes, a few. Although some animals make appearances in other's pieces and a couple of scenes revisit those previously introduced, there is no through story. Each scene is left to stand on its own. and the ones that are merely good suffer a little by comparison. And cute as their number was, potted plants don't really count as animals, but they contributed to the first act's running longer than it needed to. Although there is an attempt at culmination at the end, little has really built up to it, and it comes across as more pretentious than portentous.
But so much of Animal Fair is spot on target - simple without being simplistic, clever but rarely for cleverness's sake. Yes, that is what alligators would be thinking as they lay in the sun (Wilson, Lowe, Gentry)! And a tune just might just stay in your head after the curtain call. Kudos to the Gallery Players for presenting this New York premiere.
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Copyright 2001 David Mackler