Before attending The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, I’d heard it described a lot of ways: “Tim Burton meets Charles Dickens,” staged graphic novel, fairy tale, silent film, animated movie, pantomime, live children’s book for adults, and musical.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Produced by acclaimed British theater company 1927 and hosted by Studio Theatre, Animals and Children is probably unlike anything you’ve seen before. Mixing animation, live music, pantomime, and monologue, the show playfully takes us into a world we never imagined could exist on stage.
Animals and Children follows the stories of multiple characters from a miserable, impoverished community known as “The Bayou,” where children become so bored and frustrated by their stagnant and hopeless lives that they take to the streets as rioters. In particular the piece focuses on a fragile, bleeding heart mother named Agnes and a lonely, cynical caretaker not at all unlike Edward Scissorhands. As the story progresses, fate brings these two wanderers together in increasingly charming ways.
1927 has no weak players. Founded in 2005 by writer, performer and director Suzanne Andrade and animator Paul Barritt, the team now includes performer and costume designer Esme Appleton and performer, composer, and musician Lillian Henley. Each of their contributions plays a crucial role in the play, and none feel weaker than the next.
The world of Animals and Children is a place where anything is possible, in large part thanks to Barritt’s work. His animation, projected onto the set throughout the show, can take us anywhere, and does – from roach-infested flats into, quite literally, the stratosphere. At the same time, the animation works best when it complements the action rather than taking the reins as it does for brief moments during costume changes. During those breaks, the set feels flat and boring; but fortunately the animation that can so easily lull us can also bring us right back into the story once the actors return.
The plot also takes a while to get into. The show’s final third contains the most exciting scenes and theatricality by far, while the first third feels more like disconnected vignettes. Those early scenes are charming, though; and while they may feel disconnected at first, they soon prove otherwise.
Within all the inventiveness of staging, Animals and Children also contains strong social satire. “Children + boredom = TERROR!” the show’s villains say before proceeding to cure the kids of their excess energy. The story comments on the restlessness impoverished children experience when they see no options for improving their lives and depicts how adults have, in frustration, drugged young people into zombie-like acceptance of the world around them.
Something is always off-kilter in the world 1927 invents, creating a spectacle of contradictions. As audience members whisper how “cute” the piece is, performers take us into dark, sinister places filled with dirt and bugs where “everything’s for sale” and there’s no escape. Both are true: the show is cute and grotesque at the same time, adorable and hideous, funny and terribly sad. It’s got just about everything.
And that’s the best way I can describe it to you.
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets performs at the Studio Theatre now until July 1. Studio Theatre is located at 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. Closest Metro stop: McPherson Square (Orange/Blue lines), U Street/Cardozo (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-332-3300.