One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show

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Leakey’s Ladies would have an ambitious mission even if it weren’t an Off-Off-Broadway show playing the small Dixon Place and with a limited budget. But Gretchen Van Lente’s look at three very worthy women, with an experimental structure and a multimedia design that errs on the side of the amateurish, bites off more than it seems to be able to chew.

Ladies is a triptych of short plays, each written by a different female playwright, about the work done by three well-known primatologists. Rachel Hoeffel contributes the story of Dian Fossey, Crystal Skillman provides the bio of Biruté Galdikas, and Erin Courtney gives us the Jane Goodall arc. The play fuses the overlapping lives of these pioneers as they researched African primates in the 1970s and 1980s under the aegis of philanthropist and mentor Louis Leakey (in real life, these women were often referred to as “Leakey’s Angels”).

Van Lente’s production is clumsy on several levels. One learns little of the obstacles these women had to overcome, whether it be due to gender, money, politics or geographical dislocation, and their struggles are reduced to one-note sacrifices, including Goodall’s marital problems or Fossey’s myopic obsession with the gorillas she studied—and either more or less should be made of Fossey’s still unsolved murder. We also learn little of the women’s relationship with Leakey (played, a bit anemically, by Scott Weber).

The plot is also confusing, since events do not occur in chronological order. Van Lente transports her audience back and forth several times, to minimal effect. She also fails to take advantage of her own resources to help curtail such confusion. Visual enhancements in a stage performance need to feel merited, but in Van Lente’s production, they come off as gratuitous. The play’s video projection (courtesy of James Walton) lies largely dormant during the show’s 85 minutes. What’s the point of employing a screen if it’s only going to be as relevant as one of those random karaoke videos? At the very least, superscripts giving the date and location during each of the numerous temporal jumps would have helped.

Meanwhile, David Valentine, who did the puppetry and mask work on Ladies, uses several different methods to portray the show’s animals. Sometimes actors wear primate masks or costume pieces resembling a pelt, and other times he opts for puppet dolls to resemble the primates. (The puppet animals feel more animated than members of the cast.)

Of the actors, Amy Carrigan acquits herself the best as Galdikas, injecting a spirit that never relents even as the play itself hits a rut. Tatiana Pavela and Meghan Williams have more difficulty navigating the play’s rocky terrain; their work feels a bit more redundant, with no lessons learned along their characters’ interrupted journeys. All of which is a shame; these angels deserve to fly.

Leakey’s Ladies

Through Feb. 4 at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie St. (betw. Delancey & Rivington Sts.), [](; $16.

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