nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 31, 2007
There's a classic thought experiment devised by the physicist Erwin Schrodinger (and called "Schrodinger's Cat") in which a cat is placed in a sealed environment with some radioactive material and a mechanism that can cause the material to kill the cat. One of the implications of this experiment is that the only way to find out if the cat is alive or dead is to open the box, which trips the radioactive material, which kills the cat: the observer affects the outcome irrevocably. (Read much more about Schrodinger's Cat here.)
Now, as a theatre reviewer, I encounter the paradox implicit in Schrodinger's experiment all the time. How much do I influence or change what happens in the theatre, simply by being there? Serendib, the fascinating new play by David Zellnik, focuses on the same question.
Serendib is set in Sri Lanka, specifically in the ruins of an ancient city called Polonnaruwa, which is now the protected habitat for communities of toque macaques (monkeys). The play is about a troop of these monkeys; and about a team of scientists who have been studying their behavior for more than three decades; and also about a crew of documentary filmmakers who have come to make a movie about the scientists and the monkeys. Layers of observation = layers of influence and (in)advertent change: Zellnik's play cannily encapsulates how each of these sets of watchers imposes values and unlooked-for results on those they're supposed to be just watching.
Serendib is also about how Europeans transformed—and transform—this South Asian island and its inhabitants and their culture, just by showing up to look at it. (They of course did much more by colonizing Sri Lanka.)
And it's also about how human beings anthropomorphize animals—here, the macaques—to make them more understandable to us; and how we adopt the same sort of process to make people who speak other languages and have other traditions and values also more understandable to us.
And, at its outermost layer, Serendib is about what we do, sitting in the theatre, processing the surprises that await us on stage and trying to make sense of them.
Lest I make the show sound hopelessly theoretical, I hasten now to add that Zellnik tells great, compelling stories here, and that he's created varied, grandly human characters that we can care about and identify with. The fact that some of them are macaques is entirely the point...
Carlos Armesto has staged the play beautifully on a gorgeous and very effective rotating set designed by Ryan Elliott Kravetz (Serendib's production values are way beyond what's customary for a $30 ticket price). Seven actors portray all of the play's human characters, with Geeta Citygirl especially memorable as a Sri Lankan native who works for (and is startlingly taken for granted by) the scientists, and P.J. Sosko terrific as a Russian biologist who opposes the scientists' research philosophy and has been brought in by the filmmakers to add conflict to their movie (yet another instance of that Schrodinger's Cat phenomenon!). The actors also double as the macaques, working beautifully crafted monkey puppets designed and directed by Emily DeCola. (I would have liked a bit more mystery in the presentation of the macaques by both DeCola and Zellnik, but the integration of the puppetry aspects here are nevertheless masterful.)
Serendib is that rarity—a play that really stimulates thinking. I left wanting to learn more about the monkeys and their Sri Lankan habitat, and also about the people of Sri Lanka and their relationships, past and present, with their colonizers from the West. And I certainly am looking forward to Zellnik and his collaborators' next projects. This piece is a definite feather in the cap for the EST/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation project, which sponsors science-themed plays at the First Light Festival every year. I recommend it.