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Theater Review: “The Squirrels”

“The Squirrels” plays through July 8, 2018, at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).
Photo credit:
Jim Carmody

At La Jolla Playhouse, winter is coming, nut caches are running low and mating season is coming.

Squirrels? La Jolla Playhouse? What am I talking about?

It’s the world premiere of “Squirrels,” the latest effort by playwright Robert Askins, known in these parts for another strange play called “Hand to God,” which played at San Diego Repertory Theatre and featured a foul-mouthed demonic puppet.

Now he’s back with a 90-minute allegorical story about who’s got the food and who wants the power, played out in the squirrel world with actors in Paloma Young’s furry costumes, big furry feet and giant bushy tails.

Crazy? Of course. Crazy is what Askins does. Charming? Yes, that too, and thought-provoking.

Here’s the pitch: A scientist (two-time Tony nominee Brad Oscar) opens the show, telling us that squirrels hide the nuts they find in caches (one kind of nut per cache), and that this story is about the struggle for survival between Grey squirrels and their redder and bigger counterparts, Fox squirrels.

Terence Archie plays Scurius, the nut-hoarding champion nut-finder and grey squirrel paterfamilias, who lives in the hollow of a tree with his biological family (partner and peacemaker Mammalia (Candy Buckley), headstrong daughter Chordata, played by Lakisha May) and adopted daughter, Fox squirrel Rodentia (Summer Spiro).

Greys don’t get along with fox squirrels – except when they do, as when Scurius and Mammalia adopted the orphaned Rodentia, a pretty little thing with her own agenda.

The family hollow looks strangely like an office – with a desk and chairs – on Beowulf Boritt’s astonishing, modernistic 24-foot steel tree of a set – the kind with stairs and walkways. I told you it was weird.

One day, branch-dwelling fox squirrel Carolinius (Marcus Terrell Smith) comes in search of nuts to help his tribe survive the winter. What Scurius doesn’t know (yet) is that his daughter Chordata is attracted to Carolinius. Scurius demurs, but Mammalia (who has been giving Carol nuts all along on the sly) convinces him to cooperate.

Trouble starts when a stranger arrives in the form of scheming grey squirrel Sciuridae (also played by Brad Oscar), who immediately tries to set Scurius against the fox squirrels by telling him that foxes are too lazy to gather their own nuts – and worse, “are here to take our women.” Preying on Scurius’ own prejudices, he succeeds in fomenting a revolt against them.

If it all sounds way too familiar, that’s probably the intent: after all, we’re all animals, aren’t we

Speaking of that, this terrific cast spent considerable time learning how to move and make noises like squirrels. The character names reflect the Latin names for the squirrel genus and species.

The plot goes a bit off the deep end toward the end, and I would like to know more about Carolinius and his story, but “The Squirrels” (with fine assistance from lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, sound designer Cricket S. Myers and projection designer John Narun) offers an amusing tale that challenges assumptions about good and evil, power and tribalism.

This is an experience like no other.

The details

“The Squirrels” plays through July 8, 2018, at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org