By Wei-Huan Chen, Houston Chronicle
There are times when reality truly is stranger than fiction.
The gruesome and baffling case of Travis the chimp and Charla Nash stunned the world in 2009, not only dominating the headlines of gossip rags and daytime television but also raising inexorable questions about the relationship we have with animals.
Many of us still remember visceral images of Nash's disfigured face after her neighbor's adult pet chimpanzee leaped upon her and brutally attacked her face and extremities in 2009.
The black comedy "Trevor" mines that bizarre true story as an ambitious creation by playwright Nick Jones that has a run at the Catastrophic Theatre through March 4.
Directed by Tamarie Cooper, it features primal performances from Kyle Sturdivant and Carolyn Johnson, who shake up the stage with their physicality and toss out surprise after delectable surprise like candy.
Yet the play remains a tonal mishmash whose point of view borders on the incomprehensible. It has the comedic timing and domestic scenery of a sitcom, the playfulness with reality of a musical and the quiet, blood-bubbling tension of a Quentin Tarantino film. But those elements do not amalgamate in the cohesive, if startling manner Jones intended.
Sturdivant plays the hulking chimp Trevor, who lives with his human "mother" Sandra, played by Johnson. He embodies the mindset of a 4-year-old but has the ego and aspirations of a fledging actor (Travis was indeed a well-known actor). Like the real-life Travis, Trevor lives and acts much like a human being. He drinks red wine in a glass. He watches television. He even knows how to drive, badly.
These are all aspects true to the story of Travis.
But Trevor speaks to us in English, suggesting that the story is told from his point of view. This is the first difficult challenge of the play. Sturdivant doesn't simply pretend to be a chimp, nor does he anthropomorphize the character. The reality of the play lies somewhere in the confusing in-between, where we interpret the titular character neither as an animal nor as a human.
This means that the impending violence carries little logic. Why exactly did Travis attack Charla Nash? Was it in his nature? Scientists postulated that a domestic home was an inappropriate setting for an adult chimpanzee, whose aggressions are normally carried out through sex.
But Trevor the fictional character isn't a sexual one. He merely is angry that he doesn't get to star alongside once-commercial-co-star Morgan Fairchild (Elizabeth Marshall Black). Though Sturdivant's performance is remarkable, the story fails to offer us a convincing motivation for Trevor's explosive behavior.
No, Jones did not set out to answer any questions about Travis the chimp. The play instead brings the already unbelievable reality into an alternate universe of show biz dreamscapes.
It brought me joy to see the light triviality of the first act morph into sudden terror, a nod to the deadpan gore of the Coen brothers. Here were a group of performers with the discipline not to hint at what was to come, letting the burst of violence erupt without warning.
But if we still know nothing about Trevor (or Travis) nor the woman who loved him, then we what are we to make of their situation? First, we laugh. But then we hear her screams, see him jumping onto the coffee table with the force of an earthquake. Our stomachs turn a bit, and, after the play ends, we are left as dazed as monkeys on a movie set.