If you have a pet or know someone who does, I’m sure you know how deep the bond between animals and humans can run. But Northern Light Theatre’s season closer, Wish, takes this sentiment into uncomfortable areas – as Northern Light is known to do. How deep can – or should – that animal-human connection run? If we can have shared experiences and emotional bonds with animals, what does that mean when we think about how humans treat animals? There are no easy answers, but this co-production from Northern Light Theatre and Good Women Dance Collective, running April 29 – May 7, promises a delightfully uncomfortable journey to ask these questions and more.
Based on the novel of the same name by Peter Goldsworthy and adapted for the stage by Humphrey Bower, Wish meets J.J., the hearing son of deaf parents played by Christopher Schulz, as he is hired to teach sign language to Eliza, played by Ainsley Hillyard. As Eliza quickly learns to sign and connects with her teacher, the two face an ethical conundrum: how far can this relationship go, given that Eliza (who J.J. calls Wish) is a gorilla?
Christopher Schulz says the challenge of playing the narrator as well as several minor characters in addition to learning sign language for the role drew him to the show, to say nothing of challenges posed by the subject matter. Leading up to starting rehearsals, Christopher worked with a tutor to learn the basics of American Sign Language, but once he was on set, he was able to tap into the knowledge of composer and sound designer Dave Clark, who has used sign language since childhood. While learning sign language was a challenge for Christopher, he was pleasantly surprised – and thinks the audience will be too – at how clearly the language communicates, even to those who aren’t familiar with the language saying, “We know more sign language than we think we do because so much of it is naturally learned from birth. When you’re a child, you learn to communicate with your hands and a lot of the shapes that you make with your hands make perfect sense.”
Of the two main characters in the play, Christopher explains, “J.J. is a fish out of water because he is the hearing son of deaf parents, so he can hear himself and obviously his parents are deaf. He is exposed to the deaf world, which in itself is a very interesting isolated world. Then, he has his problems and issues in the hearing world. He kind of feels stuck in between both of those worlds and an outcast from both of those worlds which is a difficult place to be… Wish is herself kind of an outcast because she is living as the only gorilla in this facility for rescued research animals. It just so happens as soon as they connect and find companionship in each other in a primal or instinctual way they can relate and can communicate. Things obviously go a little farther than that between them but that’s where it starts. That in itself it a real thing as well, people have connections with animals of all kinds whether it’s a pet or whatever and it depends on what kind of person you are. It just so happens where J.J. in is a place in his life where he is open to anything and so is Wish.”
This shared experience of feeling like an outcast and the connection J.J. and Wish form with each other, eventually lead them to develop a romantic connection with one another that transcends the reality of their being from different species. But, Wish isn’t a play about bestiality – it’s a play about communication, connection, and where the line between animal and human is drawn.
Christopher hints at some of the deeper conversations Wish lends itself to, “Gorillas have many humanistic qualities and that can really test us as people because it challenges our beliefs. If we think that gorillas are that close to humans, that we evolved from them or that we are them but a much more advanced version of them, then I guess that means you believe that love and connection with them is possible. Some people would look at this and think that this is a completely crazy idea that somebody came up with who wrote a book and then a play about, but it’s not that crazy. We do not usually get to see the world of deaf people for example, along with the world inside of a strange place that rescues animals and takes them away from the horrible things that humans do to them. There’s an element of animal rights in the play itself. I know a lot of the postings and the press out there about this show focus heavily on questions like, ‘Are animals people?’, ‘Are primates people?’, ‘Should they have rights?’ or questions about the love between humans and animals – ‘What is it and is it right or wrong?’.”
And for those that are wondering – no, Ainsley won’t be in a gorilla suit for this production. One of the things I find fascinating about Wish is that there is no special costuming and makeup to make Ainsley resemble a gorilla – it’s all left to her skilful body language and the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Of his co-star, Christopher says, “Ainsley Hillyard is a beautiful talented dancer/artist who is portraying this animal and taking it pretty literally. It’s not overly stylized or anything – it’s a fairly literal interpretation of an eight-year-old female gorilla. Every day that she shows up, she is bringing more and more layers on as far as becoming that animal – the sounds, the movements and everything… It’s partly what makes it uncomfortable too is that her portrayal is wonderful and you believe it – you are along for the ride. It’s the willing suspension of disbelief: you believe it and that’s what makes it so much more shocking and uncomfortable. You forget that it’s a person portraying a gorilla, you get on board and you’re there with it.”
Wish is presented by Northern Light Theatre at the PCL Studio April 29 – May 7. Tickets are $23 – $27 for regular performances and free with student i.d. or pay-what-you-can for the preview performance on April 28. There is also a late night booty call performance May 6 at 11:30 p.m. – tickets are $18. On Tuesday, May 3, tickets are two-for-one.
As usual, Northern Light Theatre will be hosting a salon series for Wish. The salon events start with the Director’s Circle with Director Trevor Schmidt and Good Women Dance Collective Saturday, April 30 at 6:15 p.m. Next up is the guest speaker salon on Wednesday, May 4, followed by the Thursday night talk back with actors Ainsley Hillyard and Christopher Schulz on May 5.