Get Your Claws Out!

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Photo credit: The Mill

Worse Than Tigers

Written by Mark Chrisler

Directed by Jaclyn Biskup

Presented by The Mill Theatre and New Ohio Theatre at New Ohio Theatre, NYC

August 24-September 8, 2018

The opening tableau of Mark Chrisler's Worse Than Tigers neatly and economically establishes the state of the relationship between its married protagonists. When we see them first, Olivia (Shannon Marie Sullivan) and Humphry (Braeson Herold) are sitting side by side on a loveseat, physically together but otherwise disconnected, each individually absorbed in a smart phone (perhaps some of you are reading this review in such a situation right now). When they do begin to speak to each other, their conversation takes a Beckettian turn, with the couple asking if and how they can entertain themselves, like a Vladimir and Estragon whose outfits subtly coordinate with their tastefully if impersonally appointed surroundings; and when one tries to tell each other a joke, the other interrupts repeatedly in taking every element too literally. While for the audience this is a very funny production, for the characters, jokes often fall into the paradigm of humor as aggression. Humphry and Olivia's snappy, barbed exchanges, simmering repression, and psychosexual conflict results in a play that might be described as Noël Coward meets Edward Albee meets a ravenous tiger.

In the opening of the play, Humphry and Olivia are waiting not for Godot but for Jeff, an old friend of Humphry's whose visit has been scheduled out of a desire to be reminded of happier times. Olivia bemoans the loss of surprise and the unknown in their lives, and as if response to her lament, their houseguest, seeking refuge from an escaped tiger, turns out to be not Jeff but police officer Kurt Patrick (Zach Wegner), who arrives with his flask, gun, and an unexpected connection to Olivia. Kurt could charitably be described as a bit manic and is imposingly uninhibited, but paradoxically, that dearth of inhibition functions as a means of evading the existential dread that creeps into his thoughts if he lacks "a bit of danger, a bit of blood in the water" to distract him. Kurt's contrast to the outwardly milquetoast Humphry is comedically crystallized in the way that Kurt pointedly pronounces "vase" as "vayse" to Humphry's "vahse" while they argue over the meaningfulness of the condo's décor. The minimalist aesthetic to which Kurt is reacting, composed almost entirely of grays and whites, reflects the repression and absences of feeling that have overtaken Humphry and Olivia's lives and relationship. Olivia, though, has some Hedda Gabler-ian DNA in her character, asking, for example, whether nostalgia is really an attempt at remembering what fear feels like,  and arguing that not feeling is not a form of bravery, while Humphry defaults to rationalization and therapy-speak. The clashing couple's reaction to early misfortune prepares narratively and thematically for the later, climactic hashing out of a part of their past that is neither desperate nostalgia nor yet truly relegated to the past.

While the tiger remains an offstage presence, her voice, which we hear with impactful volume, functions as both a reaction to and an amplification of the human characters, especially Olivia, who shares a symbolic association with the big cat. Under different circumstances, she could be this powerful, keenly alive animal, not the purring kitten that Humphry recalls from their lost past, although even that would be preferable to her present state—although purring is also a mechanism by which, as Olivia points out, cats in pain soothe or comfort themselves. Humphry, meanwhile, a bit like Rhinoceros' Berenger bemusedly watching everyone around him choose to transform into horned ungulates, can't help but wonder why people are going towards the tiger, or even worse (if it is worse), letting her in.

The play's tagline, a "comedy (until it's not)," elegantly sums up Worse Than Tigers, and a great final twist on the recurring joke "What is worse than tigers?" embodies the production's ability to pull off its tonal shifts. Wegner's performance invites us to laugh at Kurt's id-driven brashness, but he also brings a palpable sense of danger to the role. All three actors skillfully play off one another as fast-paced comic sparring partners, but Herold and Sullivan also effectively ground the more intimate, serious moments between their characters, building to a cathartically emotional monologue by Sullivan; and both find different ways to suggest what's roiling beneath their characters' self-imposed suppression.

Olivia asks how we experience our own emotions in an era when relationships have adopted the pace of the social media that enables them and when a person's sustained engagement with significant life and emotional experiences is received by others, she posits, like telling an old joke. Luckily, we don't have to brave an enormous feline predator in order to find out how Worse Than Tigers answers. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler

Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy. When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.

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