Primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal, the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, dreaded the thought of actors in chimp costumes in a stage version of his book Chimpanzee Politics. In fact, the cast of Out of Hand Theater and Theater Emory’s Hominid wear dapper suits and short dresses while speaking English. Audiences who don’t know the new play’s source material, however, will quickly recognize them as primates in a zoo community.
Hominid’s family of chimps display bare feet and occasional animalistic body language, but mostly resemble a peaceable, sun-drenched commune. Written by Out of Hand and Ken Weitzman, Hominid takes some liberties in dramatizing primate behavior: I doubt that de Waal’s original research subjects gathered to sing hymns in celebration of springtime. Homind’s symbolic representations of chimpanzee dynamics offer touching instances of the chimps’ capacity for tenderness, ambition and reconciliation — which, in turn, holds up a mirror to humanity at its best and worst.
Alpha male Luit (Adam Fristoe) shows sexual entitlement toward the females but respects his Mama (Carolyn Cook) and generally proves to be a benevolent ruler who indulges the playful attacks of the youngest males. When former alpha male Jerome (Chris Kayser) manipulates young Nikki (David Micley) to challenge Luit, the internal tensions result in savagery and despair. The audience glimpses Hominid’s most violent, haunting moment through a glass window of the chimps’ sleeping enclosure. Hominid’s joyful images of cooperation and play prove equally vivid and challenge our preconceptions of animal morality.
Director Ariel de Man and her actors succeed enormously well conveying the simple, instinctive responses of their roles without literally resorting to monkeyshines. Ironically, the human roles strike Hominid’s false notes. When a scientist berates his underling, his “bestial” outbursts make the human/chimp parallels too obvious. Otherwise, Hominid presents an unusual but deeply-felt portrayal of the essentials of behavior. Even when the non-human characters quote Shakespeare, Hominid evokes not the old joke about a million monkeys writing Hamlet, but the universal impulses of communities and their individuals. These are some great apes indeed.