Review: ThinkTank Theatre’s 'Exhibits in the Zoo' is an all too painful reminder of human cruelty and delusion

It’s the most binary of 20th century stories.

click to enlarge Review: ThinkTank Theatre’s 'Exhibits in the Zoo' is an all too painful reminder of human cruelty and delusion
Photo via ThinkTank Theatre
As we enter the doldrums of summer, it’s especially exciting to see two of the region’s newer small professional theaters embrace challenging new plays with keen intelligence and care. Each side of the Bay offers a chance for adventuresome playgoers to immerse themselves in a live experience that stretches audiences’ imaginations.

ThinkTank Theatre’s production of Matt Harmon’s portrait of Holocaust Jews as “Exhibits in the Zoo” is an all too painful reminder of human cruelty and delusion. How do we say something new about the Holocaust? It’s the most binary of 20th century stories. Genocide leaves no room for nuance. Jews survive through their wits and humor while Nazis are irredeemable. The mute young Mendel (Jake Perez) temporarily escapes the horror of hunger and Nazi occupation in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto by the mental pictures he records through the viewfinder of the Zeiss camera accidentally left unattended by an SS soldier.  Walking a knife’s edge to balance impossible circumstances, Kaylie Horowitz is particularly fine as Mendal’s mother, Liba, as she and her crippled husband Eli (Landon Green) navigate their family’s survival.

Set designer Atticus Failes offers a series of fixed and moveable platforms for director Kara Gold-Harris and her designers Sofia Pickford (costumes) and Jo Averill-Snell (lights) to seamlessly morph from interior and exterior vignettes of the Warsaw ghetto. Pickford finds just the right silhouettes in a nearly monochrome palate and Averie-Snell controls the pace, mood and focus of the narrative as Gold-Harris seems to multiply her small cast and makes dramatic use of foot-stomping action to punctuate the drama. Georgia Mallory Guy’s sound design conjures up a particular time and place as it intermingles Hebraic chants with lilting minor-keyed klezmer clarinet wails and plaintive moorish fiddling that presages the horrors to come.

Mendel’s gaze may provide him fleeting, ecstatic joy, but it nonetheless inevitably leads to a horrific conclusion. Still, Ms.Gold-Harris’s staging and Ms. Averill-Snell’s lights leave us with a haunting, indelible image that taps into the audience’s imagination. It reinforces the power of live theater to trump realism through a simple, abstract moment which freezes time and snatches an emotional gut punch from thin air.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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