‘Bruno Littlemore’ shines a light on the words and wonder that define humanity

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The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

The Englert Theatre — Saturday, Apr. 30 at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 1 at 2 p.m.

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore at The Englert Theatre
Barrington Vaxter as Bruno — still from the Englert promotional video by Kaitlyn Busbee and Brennan Ayres.

It’s an amazing thing, language. As you read this, we’re separated by space and time — yet there’s an urge to bridge that gap by stringing together characters in a way that (hopefully) makes some sort of sense. It’s possible the ability to talk modified our brains in such a way that we evolved into the type of beings that took over the planet and imagined devices that allow us to talk without even being in the same room. We take it for granted, yet it both bookends our lives and keeps us connected throughout their entirety, from the joyful response we get when we utter our first words to the obituaries that others write to remember us when we’re gone. What it means to have language — and how it connects to what it means to be human — is the enormous subject of Benjamin Hale’s novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, and Working Group Theatre‘s theatrical adaptation of the same.

Sean Lewis has been breathing new life into local stages for years now with his peculiar brand of theatrical poetry. Pieces such as Killadelphia and Dogs of Rwanda explore huge topics with a scale seemingly impossible for the stage, made possible by a collage-like style that brings a variety of monologues, scenework and technical elements together to make a lot of theatre out of a few moving parts. The latest challenge is The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore — a novel of no small scope, fit onto the Englert’s unassuming stage by Working Group’s incredible actors teamed up with New Territories Dance Company.

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore at The Englert Theatre
Vaxter as Bruno — photo by Adam Burke
The story follows the life of Bruno (Barrington Vaxter), a chimpanzee who is taught to talk through a combination of experimental methodology and simple human connection. As his bond with his caretaker, the researcher Lydia Littlemore (Jordan Arnold), deepens, his skills develop at an amazing pace, and soon he is not only talking but navigating complicated social situations and learning to communicate through visual art. As Lydia gets in too deep, disaster strikes and Bruno is sent spinning loose to find himself on his own, growing eventually into the sophisticated speaker who, in part, narrates the show.

It’s been suggested that the earliest words arose not from any materialistic need but from a deep urge to voice and share awe at the wonder of living in this world — that we communicate at the most basic level not with symbols, but with a reaching out for reassurance that we are not alone. Hale takes this idea and runs with it, and Lewis takes what is philosophical and introspective and makes it immediate and theatrical. Lydia is convinced that a social bond is needed to get Bruno to talk (indeed, at first, he only talks to her), and Bruno, through the magic of theatre fully evolved at the same time, explains:

“A baby’s first word is not a symbol, it is not representation. Before it becomes any of those things, it is irreparably an act.”

Through Lewis’s stage adaptation and the actors’ careful focus, we see that act of speaking, that act of love, again and again. We see it through Arnold’s connection with Vaxter and with the dancers who play Bruno as he narrates the action. While the other scientists filter his presence through theories and data, she simply pays attention to him. The point is illustrated when Lydia puts Bruno to bed, as they echo “don’t let the bedbugs bite” — a silly little idiom that would raise an eyebrow for someone listening literally, but nevertheless serves as a ritual that elicits pure joy in both speakers.

Vaxter as Bruno; Arnold as Lydia -- photo by Adam Burke
Vaxter as Bruno; Arnold as Lydia — photo by Adam Burke
The lessons of all this are not lost on Arnold herself, who plays Lydia. With her, the smallest of lines has meaning, a fierce communication electric with life, grounded in the present moment. She does not shy away from what is a quite difficult character, a woman haunted by demons yet brimming with love. It would be easy, given the content, for Lydia to seem at best naive, at worse perverted, but she does not; in Arnold’s hands she seems tragically human, like the rest of us — dangerously flawed and unabashedly wonderful at the same time.

Bruno is portrayed by Vaxter, who represents the chimp at his fully evolved state, and also by two dancers from New Territories Dance Company (Jesus “Chuy” Renteria and Nichole Zozulia). This choice gives the production a lot of flexibility, and allows Lewis to highlight a lot of the themes in the text. Arnold gives all three of these players equivalent focus, and we can see that Lydia has always treated Bruno as an equal, even when he could merely give grunts in return. Through Vaxter’s performance we can see that Bruno has grown, gaining a broad understanding of the world and losing his innocence. With his younger selves, he romps around the stage playfully, recapturing the joy of discovery and wonder. With us he is philosophical but bitter, rarely failing to remind us that he did not become fully human without regret. Vaxter is a delight, whether pouncing around the stage in simian rage or standing upright and regaling us with his musings on the meaning of life. The actor obviously grasps both the pain and the joy inherent in the character.

The rest of Working Group’s actors — Tim Budd, Matthew James and Katy Slaven — combine with the dancers to fill out Bruno’s world. The actors play multiple roles, each with specificity and skill, and choreographer Analia Alegre Femenias’s deft choreography adds another element to this piece, reminding us that we have not just a rich verbal language but treasure trove of movement that keeps us lively and connected. Combined with Jeff Crone’s lights and Lewis’ own sound design, the piece radiates on a number of levels that could not come from one discipline alone. A moment of outburst from Bruno comes at us from all angles: The lights shift to match the tone of growing rage in Vaxter’s voice, the sound underscores his angry monologue and, as the dancers initiate a frenetic twirling, Vaxter joins the them in ripping apart the set dressing. The actors respond with shock and awe. It is a stunning reminder that theatre is far from a dying art in the hands of Working Group, who are always looking to employ its tools to keep it fresh and exciting.

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore at The Englert Theare
Members of New Territory Dance Company — still from the Englert promotional video by Kaitlyn Busbee and Brennan Ayres.

Having a number of well-versed utility players allows Lewis to give us the broad scope of a novel in the breadth of an evening. We’re able to switch time and place on the stage rapidly and believably, especially when the tech and the acting comes together. A lighting shift to evening combined with a couple of swimsuits, and Lydia is in a hot tub in California. An actor comes on with a hat and a backpack as a disaffected teenager and suddenly Bruno is in suburban New Jersey. Best of all, the magic of theatre allows Lydia and Bruno, whose relationship was fleeting and full of anguish, to spend the evening outside of space and time, reminiscing for the audience.

A style of theatre that visits many places and times effectively allows us to do what novels can do: explore a broad theme with a variety of parallels and metaphors. Bruno gives us many examples of how confused our labels and identities are, and on his travels he encounters a number of situations that throw this into relief: An authoritarian researcher who treats his subordinates no better than he does the chimpanzees. A retelling of the story of Diogenes the cynic, who thought it wisdom to call himself a dog. And, in Shakespeare, a cultural touchstone for Bruno, who takes part in an amateur production of The Tempest.

Here Bruno is able to express his rage at the human race through the humanities. “You taught me language,” he says with Caliban, “and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.” Bruno’s exquisite understanding of what it is to be a monster to be gawked at takes what is at the superficial level science fiction and makes it a very real comment on modern society. We’re like this, all of us: we have the ability to process and internalize the symbols others throw at us, to a fault. Put us in a cage and we act like criminals. Build us a studio and we become artists. Our social institutions, and we as individuals, could learn a lot from this talking chimp.

I implore you to go see this show. It’s not every day that we get to see new works come to life right here in Iowa City, put together by artists and technicians who put a lot of love into their creations.

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Two performances of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore remain: tonight, Apr. 30 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, May 1 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10–25.

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