Trevor Shows Us the Laughter and Pain of Our Animal Instincts

By Jessica Goldman – Houston Press
Kyle Sturdivant and Carolyn Johnson in Trevor.
Kyle Sturdivant and Carolyn Johnson in Trevor.  Photo by Anthony Rathbun

The setup:

Some stories are ripped from the headlines and some stories are ripped from, well…something more substantially and horrifically personal. Trevor, Nick Jones’ 2013 play is both kinds of stories. The show is based on the 2009 incident in Connecticut when Travis, a 200-pound chimp being kept as a pet, brutally attacked his owner’s friend, ripping off her face in the process. The chimp was shot dead by responding police and the woman went on to become one of the world’s first facial transplants.

But Trevor, which is getting its Houston premiere courtesy of Catastrophic Theatre isn’t about the attack. There will be no face ripping off on the MATCH stage. At least not in this show. Instead Trevor focuses on the Chimp and owner’s backstory. How their lives had all the hallmarks and alarm bells to become, as Jones (a writer on Orange Is the New Black) sees it, yet another Great American Tragedy.

The execution:

From the minute Trevor comes onstage at the start of the play we know this production is something special. Something we’ve probably not seen the likes of before. Trevor, played by the furless and completely human looking barefooted Kyle Sturdivant, dressed in overalls and an orange and blue striped shirt, bursts into the house and in frustration slams the car keys down. “Well that’s a no go on the Dunkin Donuts job,” he says in perfect English. Perfect English to us anyway, his human mom/owner Sandra (the terrifically haggard and sadly beat down by the world looking Carolyn Johnson) can’t understand a word he says. All she knows is that she’s furious that Trevor’s stolen the car….again. As she chastises him with admonitions of “Bad Trevor, bad!”, we come to realize that while she too speaks perfect English, Trevor can’t really understand a word she says either apart from a couple words including his name.

Such is the conceit of Jones’ comedic but ultimately painfully tragic play that cleverly pits animal against human in a loving, but totally ignorant to what the other one thinks or feels, codependent existence. Trevor and Sandra believe they know what the other is going on about. Mostly anyway. And they can communicate through some basic sign language. But really this is a relationship of missed connections, with both parties woefully deaf to the other’s needs.

But back to the car. Trevor may be able to drive a few blocks and sure he looks and sounds like human to us, but just watch how he moves. Lumbering bowlegged heavy steps, arms hanging heavily at his sides, his wrists limp until knuckles are plowed down on surfaces to help steady him. Hugging Sandra includes a gentle nibble on her shoulder or an exploration of her ear. Excitement causes him to bounce up and down bending both knees in dance. Anger causes him to spin around with arms flailing. It’s a remarkably detailed and nuance-filled performance from Sturdivant, a hulking presence known more for his broadness rather than meticulous control. A performance filled with impeccable comedic timing and wrenching emotion that all on its own could have carried the show.

But Jones had blessed us with a script and a story that equally captures our attention.

The similarities to the real events are there. Sandra and her husband raised Trevor since he was a baby, training him to do commercial and TV work. But the husband has passed and Trevor is too old to be cute enough for showbiz, so now mom and chimp rattle around the verging on shabby country house and the kennel caged backyard (remarkably conceived by Ryan McGettigan). Sandra’s rattles are ones of depression and need of family as she clings tighter and tighter to Trevor, calling him her baby, hanging his photos and artwork around her house, and assuring her new very skeptical and worried neighbor Ashley (Jeanne Harris) that there is no way Trevor would ever harm her or her new baby . Trevor’s rattles though are something altogether different. It’s through his inner monologue that Jones unleashes the comedy of the show.

All Trevor wants is to work again. To be in show business. To reconnect with his great love Morgan Fairchild, whom he co-starred with on a commercial and was set to do an animal variety program with until the show got canceled. Trevor talks with the bitterness and the optimism of an aging diva who believes that if someone would just give them a shot, they could be a star again. His flashbacks and fantasies of work with Ms. Fairchild (a spectacularly '80s blond bewigged Elizabeth Marshall Black) are as hysterical as they are ridiculous in their chimp insider view of what Hollywood expects from its animal stars. “Don’t break the camera and don’t poop your pants” being just two of the must do’s Trevor imparts to us.

Trevor’s fantasies and purposelessness begin to agitate him more and more. Is he getting his break or not? And why is everyone so upset with his outbursts, don’t they know he’s just trying to get his SAG card renewed and get his agent to book him? More and more, he doesn’t like the way Ashely looks at him. As for Sandra, she keeps making excuses for Trevor, denying that he is in fact a wild animal with instincts she can’t control. Plus she has to deal with Jim, the cop that comes to visit (Charlie Scott) questioning whether it’s safe to keep Trevor now that he’s so big and strong. Then there’s Jerry (Ronnie Blaine) the man Trevor thinks is his booking agent at last but is really an animal welfare agent come to ascertain whether Trevor needs to be taken away or not.As little as possible should be said about these fantasy scenes, some of which include Oliver (Jeff Miller) a chimp friend of Trevor’s who made it to the big time and stayed in the spotlight, so as not to spoil the fun. Roaring laughter was the response from the audience and deservedly so. But even as we laugh at these scenes and Trevor’s running bitchy but not understood dialogue with Sandra, there’s a distinct undercurrent of the tragedy we know is inevitably around the corner.

The final scenes of the play are distinctly different than the real life events that inspired this play, but they are by no means are any less tragic or pulse racing. Gone are the laughs and in its place Jones leaves us with two characters, one chimp and one human, both broken by circumstance, both acting on animal instinct, both suffering terribly as a result.

The verdict:

Apart from the must see recommendation for anyone who appreciates a superlative performance in a complex play filled with laughter, dread and tragedy, one other thing needs to be addressed here.

Yes Trevor is a terrific play and yes Sturdivant’s performance was mesmerizing. But credit for the success of this production must go to Director Tamarie Cooper who managed to harness all the comedy and tragedy of this show and package it into 100 minutes of superlative theater.

For three years I have been waiting for a director to rein in Sturdivant’s talented muchness and hone him down to an exquisite sweet spot and that’s exactly what Cooper managed to do. No doubt his larger than life actorly personality is still there, but it’s there with the kind of precision smartness a director has carefully curated and he has never fared better.

Remember, folks. A great show doesn’t happen without a great director.Same goes for the rest of the show. Cooper’s prints are all over it in all the right ways. Timing, emotional intensity, physicality, beats and breaths that let us pause, these are all the work of Cooper and while we might not realize in the moment that she is guiding us, one think back and we realize just how perceptively our ride has been curated.

Trevor continues through March 4 at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For tickets, call 713-521-4533 or visit Pay what you can; suggested price is $35.