Review: Puppets and Power Make for a Marvelous ‘Menagerie’

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Wayne (Michael Dalto) works in tool and die. Gloria (Stephanie Wright Thompson) is a single mother who apparently cannot afford the limited edition Mrs. Murray merchandise that June (Carmen M. Herlihy) buys for her son. Ernest (Phillip James Brannon) and Cici (January LaVoy) appreciate the presence of nonwhite characters on the show; they are black. And Roger (Joe Curnutte) becomes strangely defensive when the others agree that Candace, his daughters’ favorite, is “whiny.”

How such minutiae mount into a crisis is a mystery built into the company’s method. Some of it has to do with the subtle, super-sharp direction by Mad Ones member Lila Neugebauer. After the handsy Roger touches Cici and calls her “honey,” you notice how Dale, sensing her discomfort, steps silently between them. And as the choice between “Candace’s Cabinet” and “Teddy’s Treehouse” accelerates into a referendum on privilege and diversity — Candace being white and Teddy being black — you notice how the comedy has become a lot more cutting.

I say “you notice” because nothing is handed to you or signposted. The process of exposition is rigorous and ingenious, forcing you to become an active agent in the discovery of the play’s themes. It’s not even clear that the characters are aware of those themes, any more than people can make out the contours of the history they are part of.

And yet the whole project depends on an understanding of how people expose — cannot help exposing — their truest selves in every gesture and utterance they make. Based on that, the Mad Ones contend that even a focus group about fictional characters can tell us a great deal about real ones, about us.

This puts unusual pressure on the actors, who must be convincing as subjects in a verbatim faux-documentary while also suggesting a bigger picture to which they are mostly blind. First among equals at this are Ms. LaVoy and Mr. Brannon, who seem to carry the incipient knowledge of social change in their exquisitely modulated parries and retreats. And also Mr. Curnutte as a man whose hereditary presumptions of power are being undermined by puppets.

Supporting them beautifully in this Ars Nova production are those time-capsule costumes (by Ásta Bennie Hostetter) and the grungy, you’ve-been-there community room set (by You-Shin Chen and Laura Jellinek). Even the theme songs for the two spinoffs (music by Justin Ellington, words by Mr. Dalto) are perfect; they sound just like real nostalgia.

That’s quite a trick, but pulling it off is central to the Mad Ones aesthetic. Plays like “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie” dramatize the idea that history isn’t just what gets recorded in books. It’s what’s happening every moment, perhaps especially the trivial ones.

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