The evolution of ‘Bruno’

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

The Englert Theatre — opens Friday, Apr. 29 at 7:30 p.m.

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
Barrington Vaxter in the title role of ‘The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,’ opening Friday — photo by Adam Burke

“What does it mean to be fully-formed, and who decides it?”

This question, crafted by writer/director Sean Lewis, is raised about halfway through our conversation about The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, the newest play from his company, Working Group Theatre. It’s one of many themes and philosophies that we, and lead actor Barrington Vaxter, discussed, in what could have been a quick and cursory chat, but ended up making them both late to rehearsal.

More than anything else, that exemplifies for me the excitement building up around this play. Like many other Working Group productions, it’s a flashpoint, a way to get people talking, but it’s broader in scope than any of their other works. It’s not just a play about Alzheimer’s (The Broken Chord) or bullying (Out of Bounds) — although they weren’t “just” about their topics, either. Bruno takes, as its central question, the essence of what it means to be human. It drives conversation about some of the deepest things we ask ourselves in the dead of night: Do I matter? Am I valid? It’s about, says Lewis, “how much validation is completely tied to your identity.”

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore began as a novel, by University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, and current visiting professor, Benjamin Hale. When the Englert Theatre decided that, for this year’s commission, they wanted to take on a play for the first time, executive director Andre Perry presented Lewis with a choice of three books to adapt. In a story that Lewis has re-told so many times that it’s bound to start sounding apocryphal, he says he chose Bruno specifically because it seemed so impossible to adapt.

The story is wildly epic — it is the memoirs of the title character, the world’s first talking chimpanzee, and his attempts to be accepted as human. It’s a “truly isolated journey,” Lewis says, and “the goal posts keep moving” on what he needs to do to be seen. Says Vaxter, who plays the title role, “He finds out quickly that he hates humanity. He hates it, and he loves it at the same time.”

'The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore'
Katy Slaven, Barrington Vaxter and Jordan Arnold in a scene from ‘The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore’ — photo by Adam Burke

In the process of building the show, in addition to the heady fullness that was already there, themes emerged that didn’t seem present in the novel at all. The most significant of these was driven, in large part, by a casting choice.

“We’re playing with some very dangerous tropes,” says Lewis, of the decision to have a black man play a chimpanzee. In an open letter on the Englert website, he states, “See, there is an unwritten rule. It is a good one. If you are white and you are directing or writing a play you do not under any circumstances cast an African American in an animalized role.”

Vaxter, though, campaigned hard for the role — in fact, he didn’t really give Lewis much choice in the matter at all (the easy and collaborative relationship between the two, formed over many years and at least “six or seven” shows, is evident and enviable). He sees a level to the show on which it is “a metaphor for people who feel unheard or dehumanized, despite their accomplishments.” He sees, in the way Bruno is treated, a sharp echo of his own experiences. Of the shows target audience, he says, “The people who need to see this are the people at the bottom — the people who have to scrape for what they need.”

So much of Bruno’s journey revolves around the simple need to be seen, to be acknowledged. However, despite his efforts, says Lewis, “There’s never a point where they see him at all as possibly equal to them.” That experience is elevated from tragedy to truth, with a black man in the part.

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
Barrington Vaxter and Jordan Arnold, with Matthew James in the background, in ‘The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore’ — photo by Adam Burke

Another core element to the piece is the question of evolution itself that’s woven throughout the play, both in the original text (70-80% of which is straight from the novel) and visually in the way it is presented. “Evolution is such a loaded word,” says Lewis. “Evolution, at least in this piece, is such a mirage.” For Bruno, “It comes, and it comes so fast,” he says. Bruno embraces his evolution, particularly what Lewis refers to as “the miracle of language,” but, he says, “We as people close that capacity down.”

“Bruno comes to the conclusion,” says Vaxter, “that searching for completion … is part of what stops the process of evolution.” That validation that Lewis talks about striving for, that desire to be told that we are enough, that we have arrived — that itself is what prevents us from growing. Vaxter also emphasizes, though, that evolution “happens as a group of people working together — it’s a whole group of people that moves up.” It’s in that understanding that reciprocation becomes key. We may not need that validation that we seek, but we do need to be seen, and to see others.

The play itself is an evolution, in that sense. It invites the audience to see it, in different ways. “We’re not trying to hide any of the strings,” says Lewis. Instead of being representational, Bruno relies on dancers to set and change the scenes, as the settings range from laboratories to restaurants to a full dress rehearsal of The Tempest. “It’s such an epic world — I miss that about theatre,” Lewis says. He treats that epicness with a whimsy that allows for honesty to break through the reality. “As an adaptation,” he says, “[having] a lot of narration allows me, as a director, to get away with simple magics.”

That narration, of course, is carried by Vaxter, who is often monologuing while actors and dancers play out the story behind and around him. He has to serve as a through-line for the audience, a way to ground and steady them. “It’s fun,” he says, “because there’s a lot of control there … you’re always in the middle of the storm. When you can command language like that, it’s fun.”

Bruno is achieved with just five actors, including Vaxter, and six dancers. The dancers build the shape of the piece — it’s emphasized by all involved that this is a piece of “dance theatre.” The actors in the play are a team of local powerhouses who I, personally, cannot wait to see share a stage together. Playing a wide variety of different roles are Katy Slaven, who just came off of Working Group Theatre’s national tour of Out of Bounds with Lewis and Vaxter, and Matthew James, who recently finished a lauded run as Hamlet at Theatre Cedar Rapids. Jordan Arnold, who I saw most recently as Val in A Chorus Line at TCR (as Jordan Hougham), plays Lydia Littlemore, the scientist who wins Bruno’s heart, and Riverside Theatre veteran Tim Budd plays another scientist in the group studying Bruno. These are actors at the top of their game, the core of the eastern Iowa professional scene.

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is poised to be a passionate, thoughtful breakout of a piece. It runs for just three performances, Apr. 29 and 30 at 7:30 p.m. and May 1 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10–25. A talkback follows each performance and, if my own conversation with Lewis and Vaxter was any indication, the discussion will continue long afterward.

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