In another chapter of their exploration of American nostalgia, The Mad Ones’ dedication to creating “ensemble-driven, highly detailed theatrical experiences” extends to the audience from the moment anyone walks through the door to Ars Nova’s new downtown home. Projected visions of curly kale glitch and float along the foyer ceiling, suspended in a color-changing sea amid twitching insect silhouettes, looking like specks of detritus but slowly wriggling to life. With an X or a number written in invisible ink on the back of their hands, patrons wander into the space. You-Shin Chen and Laura Jellinek’s set is an uncanny, period wonder: a large rec room washed in monochromatic varsity teal, complete with formica and chestnut kitchenette. The fridge has a tiny bingo ball cage strewn on top and a chrome toaster tucked against its side. Even the disassembled water cooler in the corner has faux wood paneling. If Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s parade of polyester patterns and denim didn’t expertly usher us into the late 70s aesthetic (which it does), the mustard accents of folding chairs and the ceramic coffee set on the counter would certainly get us there.
Waiting for the performance to begin, friends find each other and embrace while the person standing behind them scoffs impatiently, waiting to pass by. Couples congregate near the round, wooden folding table at the center of the room, plastic cups of lobby Pinot Noir in hand; an usher looks on to make sure none of them get too comfortable and place their wine on a nearby desk. These displays of polite audience culture substitute the initial meeting we don’t get with Menagerie’s characters. We might think our audience experience is primarily voyeuristic, but we’re more involved than we realize.
Don’t be sad, be glad
‘Cause you’re just as good as you are
But if you want to change,
There’s one thing you can do
If you believe it, you can be it
If you believe it, you can be it
The theme song comes to us, disembodied, during a blackout near the top of the show. The song itself is familiar even though we’ve never heard it before, reminiscent of the music found in 1970s children’s programs of that ilk—Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, from which Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie draws direct influence.
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, the play not the fictional television show at its center, proves the ways in which this inspirational message for children is much more complicated than it seems. What happens when the best version of you is a person someone else dislikes? What if the parts of you they dislike aren’t parts that you can change, no matter how much you believe?
From the moment the song ends and lights come up in a flash, the cast appears, already seated around the table. Hired by but unassociated with Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie to gather data about the show and two potential spin-off series, the company Blue Horizon has assembled a focus group to meet in this room, graciously provided by the American Union Community Center. As supposed onlookers, we have a bird’s eye view on the ninety-minute session with six participants—we later discover that it’s only one of a few sessions that day. During several minutes of friendly introductions, it becomes clear that these individuals were brought together as a tidy yet obviously incomplete cross-section of market demographics, taking into account race, gender, and class.
Our host Dale, played with relentless enthusiasm by Brad Heberlee, is given the difficult task of navigating the interactions from this group of strangers and spinning every awkward moment or untoward remark into another data set for his associate, Jim (in a near silent comic turn by Marc Bovino), to remark on the nearby chalkboard. This leads to questions like, “Does anyone else in the room perceive any of the other puppets as Caucasian or Afro-American?” and, “Who in this room perceives Gypsy as sexy?” (Gypsy, a cat, is also a puppet.) What ensues relies heavily on the embodied character work from the actor/creators—all eight cast members and the director, Lila Neugebauer, are also credited as writers on the piece.
Stephanie Wright Thompson’s Gloria is vulnerable and resilient, despite being consistently overlooked because of her insecurity. Shoulders slumped and head bowed, she is a person made to feel like she can’t take up time or space by people like Roger, someone who takes up perhaps too much space. Joe Curnutte plays him with the sort of performed civility that can make you forget his narcissism, but Cecilia (“You can call me Cici. Everyone does.”) won’t forget. January LaVoy’s Cici can read a room and shift the entire mood with a quick glance, smile, and the tilt of her chin. Like Thompson, there were moments when she opened her mouth to speak but refrained. That glimmer of restrained inner life is reflected differently in June, played earnestly by Carmen M. Herlihy, as she takes her purse with her to the kitchenette during a session break and secretly places a napkin in her hand before grasping the spigot of the coffee dispenser. Phillip James Brannon as Ernest broaches each new prompt from Dale with gentle conviction, unafraid to push against rebuttals from June or Roger that undermine his ethics and, occasionally, his humanity. Wayne, a more passive, observational performance by Michael Dalto, seems to be learning as much about himself from his own responses as he is learning from everyone else’s.
Neugebauer’s direction is most deeply felt through the subtle orchestration of social cues, outwardly perceptible but in a way that only the viewers can unlock for themselves. For instance, casual racism is directed towards the play’s only black characters, Cici and Ernest, through the conduit of Teddy, the subject of one of Menagerie’s spin-offs and one of their kids’ favorite puppets. Cici and Ernest both read Teddy, a bear, as a positive black character for their children to admire and befriend. To some audience members, June’s response to Dale’s question, “How old did you perceive Teddy as being?” may not provoke a second thought (She thinks he’s fifteen; others think he’s between ten and twelve), but anyone who is paying attention to Ernest and hears his, “Wow,” in response to June understands that her answer, whether pointed or not, perpetuates the specifically antiblack idea that children who are black are inherently perceived as much older than they are.
In a mostly naturalistic turn of events, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie is a testament to this unavoidable influence of implicit bias, powered by privilege and agency. Where does your gaze wander in moments of unrest? Who are you listening to, and who are you hearing? When Dale asks for words to describe Mrs. Murray or Madame Chronicle or Francisco Cortiño—characters from a show we’ve never seen but can conceptualize so clearly—you can practically hear adjectives pop into the heads of your seatmates and then come out of the mouths of the focus group members.
What makes Mrs Murray’s Menagerie work is as much about what is unspoken among the audience as it is about the focus group on stage. During a moment as brief as Roger leaning over in his seat to touch Cici’s leg—an invasive gesture that takes all of a few seconds and all the condescension he can muster—gasps emerge from the crowd. Well, most of the crowd. It was at this moment that I realized the man laughing next to me had been pressing his leg into mine during the entire performance, and I had subconsciously leaned away and made myself smaller to accommodate him just to get through it. I looked over at Cici and Gloria sitting next to each other, and their body language matched mine. By the end of that Blue Horizon session, everyone was just trying to get through it.
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie is a reminder that even in a utopian, fantasy children’s world populated by great women like Mrs. Murray and her puppet friends Teddy, Candace, and the rest, participating in it is shaped by reality and thus has real-life ramifications. As soon as quantitative assessment is applied towards complex qualitative data, all the factors that cannot be contained or measured, like privilege and agency, will not hold. The play The Mad Ones and their collaborators have created is a tense, messy, amusing revelation of human communication and identity.