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Theater review: ‘Animate’ tries to tame existential questions in production that unfolds at Como Zoo

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Theater review: ‘Animate’ tries to tame existential questions in production that unfolds at Como Zoo

Jack Reuler spent nearly a half-century breaking and re-making the mold of theater in the Twin Cities. With “Animate,” the founding artistic director of Mixed Blood Theatre gives his final directorial effort a flair worthy of P.T. Barnum.

Reuler gathered a who’s who of local talent, called in a chit from film star Don Cheadle and somehow managed to borrow a helicopter to tell a Choose Your Own Adventure story that takes place in and around the exhibits of St. Paul’s Como Park Zoo.

Sally Wingert tries to convince city officials to go ahead with the zoo project in “Animate.” (Photo by Rich Ryan)

It’s ground Reuler and Mixed Blood have trod before. In 2017, “Safe at Home” had audiences traipsing through the press boxes and locker rooms of CHS Field. A couple of years later, patrons clambered onto golf carts and rolled through the St. Paul RiverCentre, weaving among classic cars and actors to experience “Autonomy.”

Like those productions, “Animate” blends gimmickry with zeitgeist: The central conflict involves the fictional Jackson Kennicott Zoo, which is on the brink of developing a shiny new rhino exhibit, funded by a $40 million gift by wealthy octogenarian Preston Davis.

On the day of the announcement, an interview surfaces in which Davis describes zoo chief Keisha Hardeman (the unflappable Regina Marie Williams, leading a tireless company of actors and audience-schleppers) as “street smart” and “highly articulate.”

Hardeman is an African American female, so the billionaire’s comments are broadly construed as racist. Protests ensue, as does a demand that the zoo return the donation, undoing a decade’s worth of deal-making efforts and robbing the city of a potentially valuable amenity and Hardeman of her legacy.

But smaller moral dilemmas dot “Animate” as well. The zoo must decide the fate of a giraffe deemed a “surplus animal” scheduled to be euthanized. And what of a pair of gorillas who, to human eyes, are a committed couple? Should they be kept together or separated to facilitate reproduction and the survival of the species?

“Animate” tees up the existential question of whether the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. As Hardeman, the zoo director, mulls, it’s not a choice between right and wrong; it’s a call between right and right.

In its best moments, “Animate” makes these tensions feel immediate: It’s one thing to debate the life of giraffe in the abstract. It’s another thing altogether to do so when that giraffe is blithely munching leaves 10 feet away from you.

In its lesser moments, the show can feel preachy and pedantic. Scenes are chopped up into strict eight-minute segments which audiences experience in small groups and in no particular order, so some vignettes feel rushed and others padded. The final scene — in which audiences reconvene at Como Harbor (home of the beloved Sparky the Sea Lion Show) labors to gather the various strands of the show and tie them up into a tidy bow.

For all its spectacle, “Animate” ultimately offers a quieter, more urgent lesson: We live in complex times, with competing needs and an imperative to reconcile intractable problems. Doing so requires nuance, a trait anathema to many characters in the play, and — sadly — a proxy for the binary, no-quarter-given political debate currently poisoning our country.

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