Lightning Rod Special, formerly Groundswell Theatre Company, introduces its new name with a new ensemble-devised performance piece, LET THE DOG SEE THE RABBIT. The experimental work, created and performed by thirteen artists under the direction of Mason Rosenthal, is a three-part meditation on the life and death of animals under the domination of the human gaze. Inspired by cultural historian John Berger’s essay on “Why Look at Animals?” from his 1980 anthology About Looking, LRS’s creators/performers assume the roles of both human museum staff and wildlife researchers and observers, and the creatures from the animal kingdom that slither, crawl, walk, fly, and swim, while looking at each other across Berger’s “narrow abyss of non-comprehension.” But don’t expect to see a dog or a rabbit here; it’s conceptual.
With nods to the popular Night at the Museum films, in which the exhibits come to life after closing, and the Planet of the Apes series, in which animals are the dominant species, there are a lot of ideas to consider. Is it ethically conscionable to kill animals in the name of science and education, to create taxidermy specimens from healthy living creatures for display in artificially prepared dioramas? Does every individual, regardless of species, not have a right to a natural lifespan in its indigenous environment, free from the “advances” of human civilization? What if the roles were reversed, and humans were the ones watched, and animals killed people to put on display? Are the true beauty and magic of the world found in natural history museums as qualified and quantified at staff meetings, or to be seen in nature itself, pure and uncompromised by human interference and evolution?
At a slow-paced 90 minutes, the show, though conceptually intriguing, is not fully cohesive and not always as clear and comprehensible to the audience as it is in the minds of the ensemble (a frequent issue with conceptual art); some editing could tighten the focus and avoid overly long passages of minimal action that become tedious. And the bad acoustics of The Rotunda leave much of the dialogue and original song lyrics inaudible in the echoing venue. However, there are pleasing moments that succeed in transporting us into the less hectic realm of animal consciousness and through the reverse chronology of devolution, back to the natural origins of life on earth. Brightly hued monochrome costumes that span the colors of the rainbow (costume design by Rebecca Kanach), haunting musical interludes inspired by African tribal chants and medieval hymns (sound design by Patrick Lamborn), and a slow-motion sequence of electric jellyfish moving through a darkened space (lighting design by Andrew Thompson) reinforce the aesthetics of the natural landscape and the primal drives of human civilization. By contrast, the disturbing “carcass, trophy” taxidermy that punctuates the set design (Cat Johnson) will leave you questioning the humanity of humankind and rooting for the innocent animals. [The Rotunda, 4014 Walnut St.] May 13-21; www.lightningrodspecial.com.