There aren't really any animals in 1927's The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, besides a few rats and lizards. And the children are mostly crudely drawn, cartoonish projections wearing striped shirts and eye patches, wriggling across the screen like wild, well, animals.
The setting is Bayou Mansions, a dark, dirty tenement house in some vaguely European city where the children swarm like cockroaches, infesting the city with crime. And there are cockroaches, too, some of them as big as men. It's an unsettling, bleak world, but its adult residents, their faces painted like mimes, seem more filled with ennui than fear. They shrug off their troubles, because, as they sing in a minor key, "Born in the Bayou, die in the Bayou."
When the bright-eyed, soft-spoken Agnes Eaves and her cartoon daughter Evie move in to one of the thin-walled apartments, residents raise their eyebrows. Agnes' goal is to help the children by giving them "love, encouragement, and collage." But the children aren't too keen on that idea, taking over her apartment, stabbing her sofa, and playing catch with Evie's head (don't worry, she gets it back — limbs are easily reattached at Bayou Mansions).
A young tenement resident named Zelda is the only "live" child in the play, and she uses her voice to protest social inequalities, demand an education (and X-boxes), and to gather her fellow pirate children around her to revolt. They take over a city park and steal the Mayor's cat, until reform comes in the shape of a sinister black ice cream truck with green lights and a never-ending supply of Ritalin-like gumdrops. The children are essentially brainwashed, but the adults are satisfied, because now their kids act just like they do — calm, quiet, and hopeless. Because hopefulness, wanting more that what you're born to, only leads to trouble.
The subversive script is supported by the elaborate, quirky film projections that set the tone for the play. Designed by Paul Barritt, they give the show a cinematic quality reminiscent of directors like Tim Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Fritz Lang. Without the projections, the performers would just be moving in front of a plain white screen (which is fascinating to see post-show, by the way), interacting with nothing. Although in most scenes the background is stationary — usually in different rooms of the Mansions, or on the city's seedy Red Herring Street — occasionally it's alive with dreamlike, fantastical, sometimes humorous animations, as when Olive is lifted up by the hand of God and dropped from outer space, or when Zelda takes a ride on the Mayor's cat, or when the tenement's landlord runs through the streets of the city, chased by children.
The multiple characters are all played by just three actresses. Suzanne Andrade, who also wrote and directs the play, switches between a gruff-voiced, hard-edged tenement resident; the daydreaming, lonely landlord; and Zelda's mother, who owns a pawn shop on Red Herring Street where everything is for sale. Esme Appleton is Agnes, Zelda, and another tenement resident. And Lillian Henley, who also plays piano and wrote all of the songs, plays everything from a sweetly singing gelato seller who gets mobbed by children to a bored movie theater attendant. They shift between the characters with ease — such ease, in fact, that some in the audience were surprised to see only three actresses take a bow at the end of the night.
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is a dark, sad tale, but it's lightened by a macabre humor that runs throughout and Barritt's brilliant film work. Don't take it too seriously, and allow yourself to laugh — as one child did frequently and gleefully at Friday night's premiere. We're guessing he hasn't gotten a taste of those gumdrops yet.