An apotheosis of feel-bad, this production by Brooklyn-based Nick Lehane, albeit skilfully crafted and gracefully conceived, is hell-bent on punishing an audience, overwhelming with bleakness, absenting any mere base frivolity of entertainment. Within the narrow confines of a cage in a biomedical lab, under the harsh chill of forensic lighting, an exhausted ape listlessly paces, anxiously alert to heavy-footed movement of technicians and the constant sound of animal distress. Heavy on its conscience, buried deep in the bones, is the weighted knowledge that the spectre of death draws closer.
Its only succour is escape into felicitous memories of its time spent in the embrace of fostered “family”, a time in which motion was freer, more expansive and relaxed, and treatment more loving (the light transitions to a warmer hue and the soundtrack to softer ambience in the remembrance interludes). The puppeteers (fully revealed) manage to extract a great deal of poetry out of every articulation of the simian creature, a clever visual punctuation of the themes of humans being both companionable and manipulative in their relations with animals.
Yet the sad, harrowing tale of this mistreated beast sadistically travels towards a very constricted and hopeless conclusion, a final ecstatic image (beautifully wrought) of a nearly cosmic return to home that is in truth its last gasp. The creators don’t even try to redeem humanity or search out any gesture of salvage, which is not necessarily their responsibility, but it feels like a grave reprimand to the spectators-we are seen incapable of grace or any higher virtue. And only squalid death is a given. Chimpanzee closed on 25 January