Festival Review: I Am Not An Animal

by Jane

This review was originally published at the Adelaide Review

I am not an Animal, created by The Border Project under co-directors Sam Haren and Daniel Koerner takes Adelaide Festival audiences on a 75-minute audio tour of the Adelaide Zoo.  Here, the usual exhibits are supplemented by the unusual: the mountain goats are joined by a yodeler (Jude Henshall), the siamangs play with spacecraft.

The audio tour takes the audience on many journeys: connecting the world we live in today to the past we come from; the creation of life; human’s obsession with imaginary animals; the expendable nature of monkeys in the early days of space travel.  The Adelaide Zoo has been undergoing rolling exhibition upgrades over the past few years, and is a lovely place to walk around.

The show works best when the Border Project have taken adjuncts between animal and human behavior, relationships, and perceptions. Through these moments, they have found both humour, as in a scintillating if also slightly disturbing scene with rabbits (Alerio Zavarce) on a giant bed, and with pathos, as an “audience member” (Brad Williams) finds himself in an enclosure and is made to perform like a bear in a 1930s Russian circus.

In one of the most successful scenes, we see an old couple standing with their gum boots nearly entirely submerged in the flamingo pond, she (Bridget Walters) in a simple pink dress and him (Edwin Hodgman) in pink shorts.  Over our headphones we hear them recall all of the things they have seen in the world, the changes they experienced as they grew old: in relationships, technology, music.

In this sense of small, contained scenes, the work plays out more like a curation of works rather than a single work of theatre. The elements can all be taken in together, connections can be made between different animals and exhibits, but they are essentially a series of stand alone elements weaved into specific tours.  The show is about many things, many connections between animals, humans, society, and history. Unfortunately, in trying to be about everything, it can’t quite be about anything.

Logistically, the work is a great achievement: 200 people divided down into different experiences, groups all walking through the zoo and only ever so slightly overlapping. Occasionally there were issues – instructions weren’t entirely clear with one or two retracing of steps required, participants asked to interact with a pair to find themselves alone – but mainly, it was an achieved and interesting way to experience the zoo.

Composition (Cameron Goodall and David Heinrich) speaks well to its environment and to setting the pace as we meander through the zoo.  It is never more successful, though, as it is in the opening strands as the music reaches a crescendo and the large gates to the zoo slide open: evocative of hundreds of movies before it, it introduces the audience to the idea they are on the precipice of something great.

The composition is enhanced by the sound design (Pete Best, Scott Illingworth and Belinda Trimboli), incorporating the music with sounds of the zoo, our narrator leading us through, and snatches of other descriptive sounds to our situation. The reliability of some of the sound design is called in to question: when we’ve been told we’ve heard the sound of cells dividing, how much we can rely we are listening historical sound of monkeys in space is brought to question.  But this is a minor quibble in a show that relies on us to enjoy and trust in our headsets, and relax into the complex soundscape created.

It is unfortunate that through this, we are left with a very interesting zoo tour, and a less interesting work of theatre. With so many different individual stories to tell in so many variations, an overall arc fails to build.

With a cast of some Adelaide’s best actors, it is disappointing to see so little of their craft as performers.  It is the nature of what The Border Project have created that the work is as much about the animals and their natural behavior as the actors and elements provided around them, but that means it is an empirical risk in the work that the animals won’t exhibit the best behavior for the show at the best time.

Many of the animals were lazy on the mild summer evening. A scene that relied on the playful nature of the seals to evoke feelings of a party was unsuccessful as the seals failed to engage with the enrichment objects supplied to them, and the three dancing actors couldn’t replace a joy that the Border Project had hoped to pull from the animals themselves.

It also is the nature of such a production, where it is an impossibility for everyone to see everything and so experiences are different, to wonder if your journey was as good as the others. What pieces of the puzzle did you miss out on? For some journeys, the work might be a stronger work theatre than it is a zoo tour. I won’t know all the details of what I couldn’t see, and it is unfortunate to leave the work with that nagging feeling: what if?

The Border Project, in conjunction with the Adelaide Festival and Adelaide Zoo, presents I Am Not An Animal.  Directed by Sam Haren & Daniel Koerner; Composers Cameron Goodall & David Heinrich;, Executive Producer Nichola Miles; Designer Amy Milhinch; Costume Designer Renate Henschke; Performers/Co-Creators Katherine Fyffe, Cameron Goodall, David Heinrich, Jude Henshall, Amber McMahon, Nathan O’Keefe, Alirio Zavarce; Performers Edwin Hodgeman, Jonathon Oxlade, Astrid Pill, Nadia Rossi, Ellen Steele, Bridget Walters; Sound Mix BestFX; Choir Young Adelaide Voices; Sound Designers Pete Best, Scott Illingworth, Belinda Trimboli. Photograph by David Mattner. At the Adelaide Zoo, 17/03/12