Who would dare to hinge a stage drama on the exotica of origami? (Which the dictionary describes as “the Japanese art of folding paper into decorative shapes and figures.”) Only a writer with the confidence, skill and rigor to employ it as a metaphor for the fragility and myriad twists and turns that define every life.
Meet playwright Rajiv Joseph, whose “Animals Out of Paper” holds us in thrall as it unfolds to reveal the inner workings of its three strongly delineated characters. Thanks to first-rate acting and direction, Mr. Joseph’s clever and insightful play is well worth seeing in a splendid production by Hudson Stage Company at North Castle Library’s Whippoorwill Theater in Armonk (HudsonStage.com). It runs through May 14.
As the play begins, we are inside the apartment of origami guru Ilana (Jenny Sheffer Stevens, Actors’ Equity). Brought to life by Broadway-quality set design, it’s a living space that is as much of a mess as the life of its occupant. Ilana’s in divorce mode and her toothless, earless, 12-year-old three-legged dog has run away. Ilana, by her own admission, is not a people person.
Eccentrically engaging Andy (MIchael Guagno) finds that out quickly enough when he comes knocking and Ilana doesn’t bother to disguise her discomfort when this garrulous stranger lumbers clumsily into her reclusive world.
Ilana may be an indifferent host but she’s enough of a renowned origamist that high school calculus teacher Andy beseeches her to tutor one of his students, whose brilliance is blinding.
Like Andy before him, student Suresh (Adit Dileep, Actors’ Equity) barrels his way into Ilana’s apartment, posing with hip-hop swagger, grooving to the music plugged into his ears. He’s a whiz not only at calculus, but, to hear Andy tell it, is also “the Jimi Hendrix of origami.” Flaunting his many-splendored gifts, Suresh milks an opportunity to impress Ilana further by creating freestyle rap lyrics without blinking.
Analogous to Ilana’s escaped canine, this trio resembles a lost, three-legged creature that teeters its way through a progression of naked truths and raw emotions that reveal the vulnerability, confusion and potential for salvation in all of us.
If that sounds oh-so-heavy, leave it to a crafty, cerebral dramatist like Rajiv Joseph to pull it off with the elegance and lightness epitomized by Ilana’s origami, whether it’s an oversize pterodactyl mobile or a heart-shaped mesh that could revolutionize non-invasive cardiac surgery.
Along the way, we witness a clash of attitudes and even cultures (when Ilana comments on how Suresh speaks, he replies, “You think I should sound Indian?”). Each character lives fully within his or her own world, and needs to let others in, but struggles to figure out how.
We also peer in on the various sides of each character, mirroring origami as a geometry of surfaces connected by creases.
Suresh’s outward brio masks his emotional needs and the profound pain he lives with after losing his mother in a fatal hit-and-run accident.
Andy lives in a bubble of blessings, which he literally counts by writing them down in his not-so-secret diary that Ilana ends up reading one night. “When I was 12,” he tells her, “a fortune cookie said ‘Count your blessings,’” and so he does, every day. His obsessive-compulsive tendencies have resulted in more than 7,000 “blessings.”
When Ilana questions how “pain” qualifies as a blessing, as Andy has entered in the diary, he observes, “it’s not pleasant, but it’s real.” That is how Andy, who says he’s never been truly hurt, conditions himself to both feel and to see the bright side of life, even when it’s melancholy. After all, how would we know mirth without knowing melancholy?
Ilana, who hasn’t “folded” since her dog Demba flew the coop, as if in mourning, warms to Andy and to Suresh, almost to her surprise. Sparks start to fly in separate semi-trysts she has with each of the two men, both signs that Ilana finally is returning to the fold.
Early on in the proceedings, Ilana philosophizes, “Life is short, opportunities are scarce, love is rare.” Suresh tells her, “Meeting you is a blessing.” By the final curtain, all have grown aware of their respective blessings and ready to move on.
“Listen to your heart,” advises Andy. “It’s a reliable narrative.” I felt the same about the enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable “Animals Out of Paper.”
The three actors create palpable stage chemistry throughout, and are well served by the sure-handed direction of Stephen Nachamie. The pacing is as crisp and wise as the dialogue.
As always with Hudson Stage productions, the technical proficiency is first class. Sound design (William Neal) plays a prominent role in this show and it is coolly dynamic, whether hip-hop or Sinatra on the speakers. Andrew Gmoser’s lighting is as illuminating as ever, maintaining his status as the gold standard.
Special mention also is due the authentically detailed and impactful set designs by Shoko Kambara, and the smooth, efficient set changes governed by stage manager Genevieve Kersh.
Executive producers are Denise Bessette, Dan Foster and Olivia Sklar.