The SQUIRRELS are acting a little nutty

Squirrels…you see them in parks, or running around looking adorable with their fluffy tails and the cute way they eat.  But we all know, even as we may throw them scraps of food from a park bench, deep down in every squirrel lurks the heart of a vicious animal with Machiavellian tendencies, ready to fight to the death to protect their nuts.

I’m not the only one who sees the potential in them, as La Jolla Playhouse brings Robert Askins’ darkly comedic new one act play THE SQUIRRELS to the stage though July 8th.

Like his previous play HAND TO GOD, this show has a unique angle to explore hot button topics.  In this case those are race, prejudice, memory, and politics – though there is no demonic puppet in this one there are people dressed like squirrels.

With their squirrel legs, feet, and of course tails (with modern clothing on top) this cast of squirrels never loses their animal mannerisms as they ferociously nibble and chitter at each other, but their issues, feelings, and justifications are entirely human.  Crisply directed by Christopher Ashley this show keeps the balance just on this side of Shakespearian squirrel dramedy.

Brad Oscar as The Scientist Photo by Jim Carmody

It opens with a scientist (Brad Oscar) explaining squirrel behavior to the audience, how the grey squirrel and the red squirrel are actually from the same family, and how some of their behaviors may look similar but have very different meanings.  The names of the characters are all the terminology for the squirrel overall family and species classifications.

Scurius (Terence Archie) is the successful head of the squirrel household.  He has gathered enough nuts to last through ten winters. The family lives in the comfort found at the trunk of the tree, and he is surrounded by his lovely wife Mammalia (Candy Buckley), daughter Chordata (Lakisha May), and their adopted red squirrel daughter Rodentia (Summer Spiro).

The Gray Squirrel family (Lakisha May, Candy Buckley, Terence Archie, Summer Spiro) in “The Squirrels” by Robert Askins at the La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by Jim Carmody

A younger, red squirrel Carolinius (Marcus Terrell Smith) approaches Scurius he is requesting some nuts for the more at risk red squirrels, who cannot survive the coming winter from their branches without any food.   Nearby trees are disappearing due to the “boom”, and more squirrels have to find places to live, find food, and they need help.  Scurius asks him where he is from, and Carolinius responds that he is from this tree but his parents “are from the other side of the 7-11.”

Scurius’ wife Mammalia and daughter Chordata both think this is the right thing to do.  It may even lead to peace between the fox and the grey squirrels.  But before he can make his final decision the scheming Sciuridae (also Brad Oscar), an opportunistic grey squirrel, warns that the fox squirrels are lazy from too much tree syrup, and that they threaten the grey squirrels “way of life.”

Swayed by flattery and this logic, Scurious resists the pleas of his wife and daughter and finds himself drawn to the message from his new friend.  Rodentia, seeing that scheming and flattery are working decides to join in and see what she can get from this arrangement as well. Violence erupts, blood is drawn, and there is no going back now.

Archie brings feeling of regal patriarch to Scurius, though it quickly starts to feel tragic in a King Lear way as he starts to deteriorate without his family around him.  Buckely as the concerned but pragmatic Mammalia is fantastic, May is an empathetic and sincere daughter.

Spiro is delightfully devious as the adopted daughter who is willing to do anything to get the wealth that she wants.  Oscar is an excellent, though detestable, manipulator who knows his personal agenda spells the doom for many but doesn’t care.

Touching on the environment, prejudice, politics, and racism there is a lot of nut for this play to crack.  It does so by keeping the action moving, and the messages subtle up until the end.  Some tightening up and possibly ending the play one scene earlier than it does may help keep the focus and not feeling like the message is being hammered in with an outright declaration.

The tree set is modern and clean lines of black steel, designed by Beowulf Boritt.  The costumes by Paloma Young allow you to see the human and the squirrel at the same time.  All is supported by Lighting from Tyler Micoleau, projections by John Narun, and sound designed by Cricket S. Myers.

Overall, THE SQUIRRELS is a very entertaining and timely play that will make you laugh and think at the same time.  But you may never look at squirrels in the park the same way.

THE SQUIRRELS is playing at the La Jolla Playhouse through July 8th. For ticket and show time information go to www.lahjollaplayhouse.org

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